A persistent downpour did not deter staff, supporters, donors, and other guests from attending the grand re-opening ceremony for Women’s Place of South Niagara on Tuesday, June 7. Staff and supporters gathered at 8903 MacLeod Road to watch Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati cut the ceremonial purple ribbon to celebrate the recent completion of extensive renovations to the Niagara Falls shelter.

Women’s Place Executive Director Jennifer Gauthier and Women’s Place Board Vice President Anthony Reitboeck provided opening remarks and accepted a certificate of congratulations from Diodati.

“The mark of a society is how they take care of their most vulnerable,” said Diodati shortly before cutting the ribbon. “Bless others with your blessings.”

Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati cuts the ceremonial opening ribbon. HELEN TRAN

The renovations, funded with the help of the community, donors, and funding partners, have been taking place over the past year. The changes were designed to consolidate two shelters into one larger shelter to help meet increased demand for services, as well as maintain sustainability, avoid duplicate services and costs, and ease the strain on staff. The expansion added 25 percent in shelter capacity, raising the number of emergency shelter beds from 20 to 40. Women and children already in the shelter have been staying in a hotel, with a formal move-in date to have taken place this past Monday, June 13.

For many years, women experiencing domestic abuse throughout the Niagara Region have turned to Women’s Place shelters of South Niagara for confidential and compassionate support, as well as counselling, safety planning, transitional housing support, and other domestic violence services.

The two original shelters, Novahouse (Women’s Place of South Niagara) and Serenity Place, were based respectively in Niagara Falls and Welland. Once the renovations to the Niagara Falls location were completed, the Serenity Place location closed in early spring.

According to Board Director Teresa Quinlin-Murphy, Serenity Place has since been replaced with an outreach office (located at the Hope Centre). Other offices will be put in place in Port Colborne (Port Cares) and Fort Erie (Bridges Community Health Care) to direct women in these cities to get the help they need.

The mark of a society is how they take care of their most vulnerable

In addition to emergency beds and places to stay, Women’s Place will “also provide legal counselling, addiction counselling, mental health counselling, child and youth workers and advocates to provide stability for children, as well as providing help with navigating the court systems,” said Quinlin-Murphy, who is also the Town of Pelham’s Treasurer.

Following the ribbon-cutting ceremony, guests were invited to take a guided tour of the newly renovated facility. Additions included two new kitchen spaces, a dining area, a child and youth wing, expanded living space, a room for teens, counselling rooms, and an arts and crafts area, all accessibility-friendly.

The upgraded kitchens (which provide free food to those in shelter) are spacious and allow families to receive meals and also to prepare their own food. Allergies and cultural food requirements are easily accommodated in the new space. A food services worker will be on hand to both cook and serve meals, as well as to provide lessons on how to cook healthy meals.

Ruth, a Child and Youth Worker, explained that the newly upgraded office adds space for abused children and youth to play games, do crafts, and exist in a safe, supportive environment.

“The renovations are amazing,” she said. “And it feels so homey.”

Another Child and Youth Worker, Julie, said that the address of the shelter will be well publicized. It is her belief that being open with the community invites more community participation, protection and involvement as the stigma is removed from seeking help for domestic violence and abuse.

To her, the facility is meant to be “a village to empower women to start on a new journey, to use each other’s strengths to move forward.”

The new spaces were designed to be open and inviting, so that women could let their children play within sight while cooking, doing laundry, and attending counselling sessions. There are also rooms for those who prefer privacy and quiet, or spaces to do activities.

Security features were also upgraded at the facility, with keypads, sensors, cameras, a fenced and gated outdoor courtyard, bullet-resistant windows, and staff monitoring.

According to a 2022 fact sheet detailing the Women’s Place Expansion Project, in 2019-2020, advocates were forced to refer 390 women elsewhere “due to lack of space.”

In a press release for the event, Executive Jennifer Gauthier said that the increase in shelter capacity “has never been more urgently needed…. Every year, we have had to turn away women and children due to the shortage of shelter beds. While we have been able to help them in other ways, for instance by supporting them through our outreach services or referring them to other shelters, we are relieved that when a woman calls in desperate need of a safe space, more often we will simply be able to say ‘Yes.’”

For those in need of services, Women’s Place can be reached through their 24-hour support line at 905-356-5800. They can also be reached at [email protected]