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FIRST PERSON: Walk A Mile returns, need more crucial than ever

Annual fundraiser to end intimate partner violence is happening October 14 at the Pen Centre in St. Catharines

The numbers continue to get more staggering each and every year. 

In its 2023 annual report released last month, Gillian’s Place announced that 293 people lived in their St. Catharines shelter in the previous 12 months, 127 of them children. In addition, the non-profit organization’s community outreach services assisted 2,017 people with legal advice, Child and Youth counselling, transitional housing support and other programs. 

As well, Gillian’s Place, which offers shelter as well as programs to support victims of domestic abuse, answered 10,383 crisis calls and texts over that same time. 

With the annual Walk A Mile In Her Shoes fundraiser less than two weeks away, it’s a good time to discuss the importance of the work done by Gillian’s Place to end gender-based violence.  

“It’s a pervasive issue in our region,” executive director Nicole Regehr told The Local. “This is an important fundraiser that really shines a light on something that is more typically kept behind closed doors. It’s also a real opportunity for men to become allies and work toward ending something that has typically been a women’s issue.”

Having participated in the walk last year as an ambassador, I count myself among those male allies. 

In preparation for my role as ambassador, I was welcomed into the shelter for a tour last September. I saw first-hand the common area facilities where the women and children prepare their meals and participate in important programs. 

I also met some of the staff who work in the child care area and who lead workshops. 

It was clear, as well, that the former Victoria School location on Niagara Street was bursting at the seams, evidence of the necessity for their Build a Safer Future Capital Campaign, designed to raise $8 million for an additional five private bedrooms and 10 beds along with a 9,000-square foot annex to accommodate their community outreach and violence prevention programs. 

One of this year’s ambassadors, St. Catharines mayor Mat Siscoe, recently sat down with me as well. 

“The idea that gender-based violence still exists,” he said, “should be offensive to anybody. As male and male-identifying allies we have to be part of the solution, we have to get the word out, and we have to raise money because the simple reality is it’s awful that a place like Gillian’s Place has to exist. But it absolutely does have to exist. Gender-based violence is an epidemic.”

That was made official this summer when Canada’s justice minister and attorney general, Arif Virani, wrote exactly that in a letter in response to a public inquest into a triple femicide in rural Ontario. And just over a week ago Siscoe and other members of Niagara’s regional council voted to join more than 47 municipalities and townships across the province in declaring intimate partner violence an epidemic.

“We need more resources within the system for all levels of government to start to deal with this properly,” Siscoe added. 

“This lets our community know that this is a serious issue,” Regehr said. “It’s one that requires our collective attention and resources to combat. We see not only the women who come to our doors but also those who aren’t able to reach out safely and are losing their lives. In Canada one to two women every single week are losing their lives to femicide.”

A key to stopping the femicide is education. Gillian’s Place recently received a grant to develop a program for journalists and students of journalism so they can more effectively report on gender-based violence. 

The 116-page Responsible Media Reporting of Gender-based Violence and Gendered Issues Guide is now available on the Gillian’s Place website, free to anyone. I plan to find time to go through the program and report on it in next week’s NOTL Local after speaking to author Laura Ip, a St. Catharines regional councillor and project manager at Gillian’s Place. 

The goal for Walk A Mile In Her Shoes this year is $125,000. At press time more than half of that amount had already been pledged. It’s a signature fundraiser that goes a long way to ensuring that the organization can help the most vulnerable.

“One of our most important programs is our legal program,” Regehr explained. “We employ a family law lawyer. Our legal system can be daunting and difficult to navigate, especially when you are leaving a violent situation. That program is one that is completely funded through fundraised dollars.”

She added that the organization needs to raise $1 million every year to sustain its current operation. As the demand for Gillian’s Place’s services continues to rise, Regehr said, it’s more important than ever that they continue to have that sustainability. 

So once again on Oct. 14, I will be at the Pen Centre slipping into a pair of high heels to join the other male allies in the walk to end gender-based violence. I hope to see you there.