Friday afternoon, I went to Gillian's Place, a women's shelter in St. Catharines.
Gillian's Place, formerly called Women's Place, is an elementary school that has been converted into a shelter for women and their children who need a safe haven.
When I first pulled into the parking area, I was struck by how pleasant the place looked. The parking lot looked new with pristine curbs and bright, white paint indicating the spaces for cars. There was a big landscaping rock with a decorative plaque announcing the address. A garden of flowers surrounded the rock, the grass was green and there are huge trees. A neighbourhood of homes exist on either side of the Shelter. A bank is across the street. It's not hidden away. It's sitting out there, right in the hub of the community. It seemed very appropriate to me that it is so visible. It seemed to say, "We're here to help and we want everyone to know it." It felt comforting and friendly.
Then I began to notice other things that brought the seriousness of the need for a shelter like this into focus. There was a playground on the other side of the building that was completely fenced in and not visible to anyone from the street. I don't know how high the fence was but I would guess in the vicinity of 8 feet. The only reason I even realized it was a playground was because I could just see the tip of a brightly coloured slide.
There was a big, heavy door that was, of course, locked. I buzzed the intercom and identified myself. I was expected and they unlocked the door from within. I was asked to wait in a small alcove, about 4 x 10 feet, while they came to get me. After a few minutes, one of the women I was to interview, unlocked another heavy door with a window in it and let me in.
I was taken past several offices to a conference room. I didn't see much of the interior but what I did see was very clean and very modern with a soothing lavendar colour scheme. It didn't even look like it had once been a school.
I talked with the executive director and another woman. I'm not sure what the other woman's position was but I do know that at least part of her position was involved with counselling. We talked for two hours.
I had brought copies of my strip's domestic violence story line so far. (Two weeks of strips, the second of which will appear the first week of August.) Cindy read them through and gave me very frank comments of what she thought. I was pleased to hear that, for the most part, she felt they were realistically written. She did comment on some aspects that she thought I should avoid in future. It's always great to hear what you're doing right, but it's just as important to hear what you should be doing to improve.
I had a written list of questions to ask but it went further than that. The women gave me suggestions of what they thought could happen to the characters and possible scenarios that I could pursue. They were unbelievably helpful and I have a much better idea of how I am going to handle this.
I was surprised to hear how many older women have had the need to use the shelter. One woman was seventy-two! They told me very sad things but also success stories. (The seventy-two-year-old woman was a success story) I want to make it clear that although they told me about some situations, they did not say anything to me that would have betrayed anyone's privacy. They are obviously very dedicated women who are passionate about their careers.
I came away from the meeting with a lot of information and ideas and while I still don't have a specific story in mind, I did make one definite decision about the type of abuse "Tamara" endures from her husband, "Jake". The decision was a result of something Cindy told me she has heard many times from women calling their support line for the first time. I don't want to say anything further on that just now. It will become apparent in the story line down the road... and I'll talk about it more at that time.
It was a very interesting and helpful interview and I appreciate not only their time but their frankness.