Shelter in the storm

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They arrived fresh from a Timmy’s run, bright red Roll up the Rim cups in hand.

Lorinda Stewart, her eldest son Mark Culp, daughter Amanda Lindhout and youngest Nathaniel Lindhout offered hugs and hellos as they arrived to discuss an emotional subject which is difficult to talk about – their not often or even easily shared story of experiences with domestic abuse.

Stewart is, for the second year, honourary chair for the YWCA Banff and its gala fundraiser to establish a Bow Valley Women’s Emergency Shelter – a much-needed resource, as the current single bed available is not enough.

Last year, Stewart courageously shared her story of intimate-partner violence in a relationship that saw her beaten to the brink of losing her life. This year, her children are sharing their story as well to raise awareness of the issue and to contribute to the understanding of how children in these situations are affected when they are in a shelter space.

Their experiences will be shared at the VINEart gala on March 19 at Silvertip in a video produced by Martin Finnerty. The Outlook was invited to help share their story as well in this week’s issue.

The foursome are clearly enjoying spending time with each other as they settle in for the video’s filming and interview at the beginning of February in a quiet studio space at the back of the YWCA in Banff. While jovial, it is clear that discussing, as a family, what happened while they were living in a home with domestic abuse is not the normal topic of conversation when they get to spend time together.

The entire family has at one time or another called the Bow Valley home, with Stewart being a current and 13-year resident. Culp lives outside Nelson B.C., Nathaniel outside Innisfail and Amanda recently moved to Toronto.

Their willingness to talk about their experiences was clearly inspired by their mother sharing her story and finding empowerment in doing so.

“I have seen over the last year how important this cause has been to my mother and the way that being the voice of a formerly abused woman has also really served to empower her,” said Amanda.

“Growing up in a home where there was domestic violence, the women’s shelter helped save my mother’s life and though I as a young person didn’t spend any time at the women’s shelter myself (I was with my father) my siblings did and my mother did at different periods of time. It was the services she was able to access there that I think eventually helped her to get the strength to leave that particularly abusive relationship.”

Stewart says accessing a women’s shelter 30 years ago may have saved her life, as it was through being able to seek counselling and have a safe place she began the journey she needed to take to leave that abusive relationship.

There are complex interpersonal relationship dynamics and situations that cannot be easily summarized when people ask why women stay in abusive situations, and there is a stigma around it that Stewart wants to address with her story. It is a stigma that can prevent women from seeking help early and she said it becomes a “dirty little secret” that abused and formerly abused women keep.

“One of the most important things for me to do this is to take away that stigma of shame for a woman and her family, because there is too much of that attached and that just feeds into the dirty little secret,” she said.

“One thing I want to help people understand is there are a lot of reasons that a woman will find herself in that situation. It is something where it has taken years to get there and will very likely take years of recovery, because you have to come to understand why you’re doing what you do and why you keep making those decisions even though consciously you know you are not in a healthy relationship.

“It is so important to get that counselling to understand the why and then that gives you the power to change your situation.”

Mark, 39, and Nathaniel, 32, say as young boys they knew the shelter they were in in Red Deer was a safe place to be and that was important – feeling safe in the storm of what was happening around them.

“The women’s shelter itself was a safe place,” said Mark. “I remember there was security there and I remember one time (he) came there and the cops were there instantly, so it had a safe feeling and it was very important because at home wasn’t even feeling like home.”

While it was through the shelter that Stewart accessed counselling, all three of her children say having that available as a support for children in emergency shelters is important and would have helped them.

Examining the criteria needed to establish an emergency women’s shelter in the Bow Valley, YWCA Banff executive director Connie MacDonald said considering the needs of children is extremely important.

“As we look at best practices to address violence against women, we know from experience that to be effective, we always have to consider children,” she said. “When women flee violence, they bring their children. When women experience violence, their children are often witnesses.

“One of the goals with VINEart, is to create more awareness in our community about what domestic abuse really looks like. And that’s why we wanted to focus on children this year.”

The Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters collects data annually to provide a snapshot into what domestic violence in this province is like for just one day each year. The latest numbers, released in July 2015, show that in one day in November province-wide, 924 women and 811 children were provided with help by a shelter. That number includes 35 women and 24 children who were admitted that day and 80 women and 98 children who were unfortunately turned away due to a lack of, or inadequate, space.

In the Bow Valley, the YWCA supported 20 women and 17 children through its single shelter space and supported another 25 women and their families through outreach last year.

“In Canada, approximately 362,000 children witness or experience family violence every year and according to the RCMP, witnessing family violence is as harmful as experiencing it directly,” said MacDonald. “Research also shows that children who witness violence frequently develop long-term behavioural and psychological problems.

“Currently in the Bow Valley, our facilities are limited, so to accomplish our goal to support women and children we are looking at opportunities to develop or acquire a new space that will allow us a designated space for families and the opportunity to work with community child-serving agencies to provide appropriate child-minding and counselling supports.

“Our goal is to find innovative solutions that are suitable to our community with the needs of children in mind.”

Looking back, both Mark and Nathaniel say they carried the effects of witnessing violence in their home as children into their adult life, with both having addressed addiction issues as part of their recovery. Both, however, also express a commitment to living a non-violent life themselves.

“Seeing some of the violence that was around when I was a kid affected me to a point where I cannot stand violence at all,” said Nathaniel. “It also really taught me how I don’t want to be … I will never be a guy like the guy my mother was with, never.”

Forgiving herself for her children having witnessed violence in her relationship is something Stewart says is part of her healing and recovery after leaving that abuse behind.

“I was in very abusive and dangerous situations for probably close to 20 years, so for me healing has come through exploring my spirituality, counselling and coming to understand why I made the decisions I made,” she said. “Self forgiveness has been a huge part of recovery … The hardest thing for me has been to forgive myself for what my children suffered, but I have to forgive myself because at that point in time, I was only doing what I knew how to do.”

It is clear her children without hesitation have forgiveness in their hearts for the past. They don’t even think she has anything to forgive herself for. The love for their mother and support for her in sharing their story as part of her efforts to raise awareness for the need to bring more shelter space to the Bow Valley comes across loud and clear.

Forgiveness is a powerful tool – one that Amanda, 34, has spoken about extensively and shared her experience with through her memoir A House in the Sky, which begins with her reflections on her home life as a child in Sylvan Lake. It is this childhood where her dreams of travelling the world and experiencing cultures and peoples would be sparked.

The travel bug is what led her to Somalia as a journalist in 2008, where she was kidnapped and held for ransom 15 months.

Amanda has, through counselling work with a psychologist, addressed her experiences of violence in her childhood, and it is counselling that helps her have forgiveness for the men who abused her while she was held captive. Counselling, she said, would have helped then and continuing to access care helps now.

“When I look back at that period of my childhood when my mom was being abused, it would have been incredibly beneficial to have had a therapist help me process what was going on,” she said. “There is such a stigma around domestic violence that you are even aware of it as a child. I can remember being very aware of that as a young kid and really feeling that sense of having to keep this big secret of what was going on in our home. Of not inviting friends over and really trying to keep it from close family members who didn’t know what was going on and then not having access to a counsellor – you just internalize all of that.”

Stewart will be on hand at Silvertip in Canmore for the fundraiser for the Bow Valley Women’s Emergency Shelter where the video of her family’s story will be shown. The gala and auction event again features an evening of fine dining, live music and wine. Silvertip Resort Executive Chef Laura Hansford will collaborate with other renowned female chefs in the Bow Valley to create a four-course culinary experience.

Tickets are $250 per person or $2,400 for a table of 10 for the black tie optional event. Go to vineartgala.ca for more information, tickets and updated auction item details.

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Rocky Mountain Outlook