A Story of Hope and Community Support Amid COVID-19: Our Conversation with Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis

Written by Caitlin Feehan
GWICC Women in Crisis Gala

Justine Morgan (right) with Sly Castaldi, Executive Director of Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis

Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis (GWWIC) is a community-based feminist organization that has been supporting victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence for over 40 years. They offer a wide range of services including individual and group counselling, family court support, and emergency housing support, and they’ve been using Penelope case management software to help manage these services since 2006.

Like thousands of other Canadian organizations, GWWIC has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We talked to their fundraising and marketing coordinator, Justine Morgan, about how social distancing has affected their service offerings and delivery, the effects of the pandemic on victims of domestic abuse, and the overwhelming support she’s seen from her community.

First off, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your role at Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis?

Sure! My name is Justine Morgan and I’ve been the Fundraising and Marketing Coordinator at Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis for three years now. At Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis, we support women who have experienced domestic abuse and sexual violence by offering a range of different programs. One of our most well-known programs is Marianne’s Place, our 28-bed emergency shelter for women and children. We also have a family court support program, transitional and housing support program, 24-hour crisis line, rural women’s support program, anti-human-trafficking program, and run a sexual assault center. We definitely offer wraparound support.

How has your organization been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? Have your services or programs been affected?

We’ve been affected in a lot of different ways. The first thing we noticed was the increase in calls to our crisis line. I think everybody’s dealing with heightened stress, whether that’s financial stress, uncertainty in general, or the fear that’s brought on by seeing all the news that’s out there. Those feelings can trigger other things in people, so we’re seeing more calls. It was chaotic at first because we suddenly had to figure out how to offer the support that we usually do without the face-to-face aspect.

We were lucky enough to have PeaceWorks, our tech support company, come in right away to get us set up to deliver services remotely, and we’re now offering counselling and sexual assault support over the phone.

We also had to cancel all our volunteer support, but we’re still trying to offer as much help as we can. Even just helping clients deal with these alternative kinds of support is challenging. Let’s say a woman is isolated with her abusive partner—how do we work around that? How would she even call us if she’s in the home with that person? It’s a real concern.

I’ve read a bit about that, actually—there was an article where the executive vice president of Children’s Aid in New York City said that it’s risky for her staff to call or video chat with clients right now because their abusers are more likely to be home with them, and clients are less inclined to speak openly if they know they could be overheard. Is that a concern you’ve heard expressed as well?

100%. I’m not a counsellor so I can’t speak to it in-depth, but it’s for sure an added element of stress. A woman who’s calling in for support might have to go into another room or find somewhere to hide just to talk to someone, and there’s still the risk that their abuser will overhear them saying the wrong thing.

Another unfortunate thing about this situation is that we can’t easily check up on people who are at a heightened risk. People aren’t in a position where they would notice if a coworker or friend didn’t show up to work or “weren’t acting like themselves” one day. Little red flags like that are going to go unnoticed right now, and the consequences of that could be devastating.

It’s also especially hard for women with kids to get the support they need during this time because of all the added responsibility. Moms right now are not only moms—they’re expected to be teachers, caregivers, and to work full time, so there’s all that added stress. I can’t imagine having that extra pressure in a home where there’s already huge instability. People aren’t sure how to cope in these unusual circumstances, and that’s what we’re trying to help with.

I noticed on your website that group programming has been suspended. Have any other programs or initiatives been put on hold?

All the court dates have been postponed, and those are hard enough for people to get in the first place. We don’t know what that’s all going to look like for people who are trying to get custody. Imagine your abusive partner has custody of your kids and you can’t see them, then your court date gets postponed and you’re left not knowing when you’ll be able to get them out of that situation? It’s really tough.

People also can’t donate tangible items right now, like shampoo or conditioner or any of the other things that women typically come through our store to get. We’ve had to completely close the office, so they can’t get that kind of support even if they need it. They can’t get diapers, they can’t get formula, they can’t get any of the things that we would usually provide.

We’ve also had to cancel our annual gala, which is our signature fundraiser every year. We rely on that funding to support all our programs and services for the year, so it was a tough one to call off, but we didn’t feel right having a fundraiser when so many people are struggling financially in these uncertain times. We can’t even postpone it because there are too many conflicts with other events for the remainder of the year, so we’ve had to outright cancel it, and we’re not sure how that’s going to impact us in the long run.

Yeah, I wanted to discuss that as well. That was one of your main sources of funding, right? Probably the biggest one?

Exactly. That’s our biggest event of the year and it typically helps us get about one-third of the annual funding that we’re expected to raise. In previous years, we’ve been fortunate, but with it being cancelled this year, we don’t know how we’re going to make up for those funds. We thought that doing an online gala might be an option, but most of the prizes were travel-based and experiential things, and nobody’s going to be buying that kind of stuff at a time like this.

How else does the annual gala typically raise funds?

We raise money from each ticket we sell for the dinner and dance, but the biggest fundraising pieces are the live auction and Fund-A-Need portion of the evening. The funds raised from this year’s gala were supposed to go toward creating a new playground and outdoor space for our shelter, Marianne’s Place.

I’ve been sending notes to all the event sponsors and people who had purchased tickets to tell them the event was cancelled and that we could either refund their contributions or keep them as donations. We were really lucky because a lot of them, including your team at Athena Software, were kind enough to donate the funds. Andra Arnold was our signature sponsor this year and she has been amazing—she bought three tables and told us to keep all the money. The generosity and positivity we’ve seen has been overwhelming.

GWICC Women in Crisis Gala Crowd

East Coast Kitchen Party Gala 2019

What other kinds of support have you seen from the community?

Since the women in the shelter are self-isolating in their rooms, we needed to provide a way for them to keep drinks and snacks on hand so they’d be interacting less with other people and could avoid eating together in the communal kitchen. It only took one email to Danby Appliances to get them on board, and they ended up giving us a great deal on 16 mini bar fridges, which was really helpful. The SEED project has been a tremendous help on the food front as well, providing at-risk women in the community who access our services with fresh food and prepared meals.

We’ve also had to clean the facilities like never before, and we had Dixon’s Distillery donate a bunch of hand sanitizer. That was a huge help because the stores were all sold out and we couldn’t get it anywhere! Tim Hortons has also reached out on days when their truck was in the area so that everyone at the shelter could get treats, which was awesome for the shelter staff too.

We’re lucky to live in this community because people often think about us before we’ve even put the call out. It’s so great to have people who are calm and think, “Okay, I’ve taken care of myself, now I’m going to take care of you”. It was impressive to see how quickly people move.

Are you providing any additional resources to your clients or community during this time?

Since we had to cancel all our group programming, we’re trying to get resources to people on more of an individualized basis. When people call in for support, for example, we might direct them to online yoga resources or workout videos. We have a lot of helpful links like that and we’re trying to get them all up on a resource page to direct people to.

On our website and social media, we’re also encouraging people who need support to call the crisis line. It’s definitely working, because there’s been a huge increase in calls. I’m also trying to create some messages of positivity and self-care in isolation for these platforms, because a lot of people need that right now. It’s hard to connect when you’re already feeling isolated or in need of support, and it’s really hard to connect without having that face-to-face support. People need connection so we’re trying to offer them at least a video screen, and while they do find that helpful, it’s just not the same. We need to think of other ways to get that connection right now.

Have you been in contact with other nonprofits in the region? Are they experiencing some of the same things that you are?

Yes, I’ve been to meetings with fundraisers from other shelters to share ideas and discuss what we can do collectively. It’s great to see what the Children’s Foundation is doing with Market Fresh, and there are a few other local initiatives that I’ve been sharing on social media, because we all support the same community. We serve a lot of people who might also be getting support from the Children’s Foundation, Wyndham House, or other local organizations, and we’re all in this together.

That’s really nice to hear. Why is it important for people to continue to donate to local service organizations like yours during this time?

women in crisis

Justine (right) with GWWIC’s Adopt-a-Senior holiday campaign donation

It’s so important to have a healthy, sustainable, and safe community. If you love where you live, you should support community organizations because they are the ones doing the work to help get everyone on an even playing field. Everybody deserves the same opportunities, and community organizations help with that by erasing barriers for people who may not have the same access to services as their neighbours.

When someone donates, what does the money go toward and how does it help?

Since we’re a service-based organization, most of the funding goes toward helping us continue to provide services for free. That includes counselling, family court support, transitional and housing support, running the shelter, providing sexual assault counselling, and providing rural support for individuals all over Wellington County. It essentially goes toward keeping the building open, keeping the heat on, and paying the people who provide crucial care to our clients.

It costs a few million dollars every year to keep an organization like ours running, and while we do get some government funding, we’re still expected to fundraise about $300,000 a year to continue operating. We’ve been able to do that for the last two years, but it might be an issue this year.

Are there ways people can help other than by giving money? Some people may not be able to offer financial support right now, but is there anything else they can do?

I think the most important thing right now is to just be a listening ear to someone. If a friend confides in you and needs support, it will mean so much to them to have someone listen and believe them and not judge them.

You can also call our crisis line to get information on how to support someone who may be in trouble, but you can’t call on that person’s behalf. In order for us to take action, that person would need to call us themselves, but you could encourage them to take that step.

Our aim, even though it might sound slogan-y, is to take women from crisis to confidence, because that’s what they need to bring themselves back and be self-reliant again. We try to provide support at every turn to help women develop that confidence and create a better future for themselves and their families.

If you’d like to donate to Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis, please visit their website.

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