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Sparrow's Hope to open doors

Women looking to get out of an abusive relationship will soon have a safe place to go right in the Westlock-Barrhead area.

Women looking to get out of an abusive relationship will soon have a safe place to go right in the Westlock-Barrhead area.

The Sparrow’s Hope women’s shelter, a project spearheaded by Westlock Youth for Christ, will be ready to take clients by the end of this month, according to director Ben Kellert.

Opening the facility is the culmination of more than a year of effort and support from countless private donors, including many churches.

“Numerous individuals and groups from the community have gotten on board,” he said. “People really see the need for a facility like this.”

He lamented that the six-bed facility will still likely not be enough to meet the needs of all the women in the region who need a place to “plan their next move” after making the difficult decision to leave an abusive relationship.

And while he does not mince words the facility is a faith-based initiative – after all, it’s the Youth for Christ centre spearheading the project – nobody will be required to take part in Bible studies or prayers.

“We’re not here to preach, and we’re not here to push anybody,” he said.

Rather, the intention is to address a significant need in the community, regardless of who is affected.

That there is such a significant need for a facility like this is not in dispute – countless statistics point to the prevalence of domestic violence in Alberta.

Kellert referred to the fact that one out of three women in Canada will experience some kind of domestic abuse in their lives.

The Alberta Council for Women’s Shelters refers on its website to the fact that from April 2009 to March 2010, Alberta’s domestic violence shelters accommodated more than 6,000 women and nearly 6,000 children. During that time period nearly 10,000 women and more than 6,000 children were unable to find shelter because of lack of space.

This is an issue that not only affects the larger urban centres – there is a distinct need for a shelter in the Pembina region, as well.

Heidi Magus is the manager of the Hope Resource Centre, an organization in Westlock that acts as a first-stop for women looking to get out of abusive relationships. In a little more than one year, more than 60 people sought help, but not all of them found shelter.

“There were a number of ladies that we didn’t bring to shelters just because of their lives,” she said. “They weren’t in a position to not go to work because they would definitely lose their jobs, so they stayed in that abusive situation until housing became available which, a lot of times, isn’t the safest thing to do.”

Prior to Sparrow’s Hope opening, the closest shelters were in Edmonton, Slave Lake and Whitecourt. Magus said she even drove one client to the shelter in Cold Lake, which is a six-hour round trip.

She added having a facility like this in the region will be an invaluable resource and will certainly help more women in this area get out of their abusive situation.

“I think this is something we’ll definitely utilize,” she said.

Law enforcement officials in the region are also getting behind this project, as they often see first-hand the devastation that can be caused by domestic violence.

“Having a shelter like this is critical in getting people out of these situations,” said Staff Sgt. Bob Dodds of the Barrhead RCMP.

Although the Barrhead detachment gets relatively few complaints of domestic violence, Dodds said he is certain it’s an issue in the community.

“It’s hard to measure how many domestic assaults are happening, because the vast majority go unreported,” he said. “If we’re seeing four a month, there’s probably five times that many occurring and they go unreported.”

And the issue is the same whether you’re looking at a large urban centre or rural areas like this one.

“It’s an issue everywhere. I don’t care what your demographics are or what your economy is like – it’s an issue everywhere and always,” Dodds said.

One of the key steps in getting a woman out of an abusive situation is giving her a safe place to plan their next move, Kellert said.

A safe place is only part of the equation, however. Another important aspect is that the place be comfortable, somewhere the women can feel comfortable – where they can feel at home.

“We’ll make it as homey as possible for the ladies,” he said.

The building itself is very conducive to fostering that kind of feeling. It is full of warm colours and a lot of wood. All the common areas are wide open and inviting, and the six bedrooms look very cozy.

There is a large living room, an open kitchen and dining room, and an area in the basement that will be set up as a children’s play area. There will also be computers the residents can use to look for accommodations, prepare resumes or otherwise keep them occupied.

The lot on which Sparrow’s Hope is situated has a distinctly peaceful, rural feeling to it and plenty of space.

Kellert said he hopes to bring some animals in and cultivate a large garden to provide food for the shelter, as well as to provide some activities for the women who take refuge there.

“We’re going to do what we can to raise our own groceries,” he said.

There will also be “house parents” at the facility to help care for the residents and keep things running smoothly.

“We have someone in the house, in charge, 24/7,” Kellert said.

While a homey atmosphere is crucial, it is not being emphasized to the detriment of security considerations.

While the shelter’s remote location goes a long way towards ensuring its security, there are many other steps being taken.

Kellert said they are going to great lengths to ensure the building is secure – they are putting bars on the windows, reinforcing doors and installing surveillance equipment.

“There will be a whole camera system inside and out,” he said. “It will be very secure.”

Installing the last few security measures are just the finishing touches being put on the shelter, which has been in development for more than a year.

Many donations have come from a variety of church groups in the region, and some very notable private donors have stepped up to the plate as well. For instance, Kellert said one individual in the Barrhead area agreed to put up money for the facility’s utility bills – for the next two years.

“He said, ‘You won’t see a utility bill for the first two years,’” Kellert said. “That just totally, totally blew me away.”