There’s a small sign on a wall inside the Catholic Social Services (CSS) La Salle house that reads: “A stranger saved my life.”
These are five words that tidily sum up 50 years of service by Canada’s largest multi-function social service agency, which helps save women and children in need of assistance.
La Salle is another addition to the CSS system, providing housing and support for women and their children escaping domestic violence and abuse. It is not just a house, say the mothers staying there, it is a home — a home that provides them and their children with safety, friendship and an opportunity to regain their lives.
Kathy (not her real name) is a 44-year-old mother of an 18-month-old son who came to Canada from Hong Kong looking for a better life. She still hasn’t found that, but she knows now it might be achievable after CSS saved her from an abusive lifestyle.
“My husband treated me as a slave and abused me physically, mentally, spiritually, financially,” she says, holding her son closely in her arms. “I came to Canada thinking Canada is much better because it is a democracy.”
She gave up her banking job in Hong Kong, came to Canada, found work and got married. Then life took a horrible turn for the worst. Her husband abused her daily, took advantage of her naivety about how things work in Canada, ran up huge debts in her name, and is still doing it.
“I came to hate Canada, hate banking, hate everything, hate everybody. People didn’t care. I was so angry,” she says. “Every time he waked up I had to present him coffee, prepare him breakfast, prepare his lunch, prepare medicine. The only thing I didn’t do is dress him.”
And it wasn’t just her who suffered. Every time her son heard a car door slam outside he went running to his mother, frightened that it was his abusive father returning.
Fortunately for both mother and son, they found CSS and, eventually, La Salle. The counselling and therapy has been tremendously beneficial for mother and son who soon found that people did care, that people were willing to help and that there is a better life for both of them.
She talks of returning home for a while but ultimately coming back to Canada to resume that better life she came looking for.
“I learned that people cared, that there are people who are there to help,” she says. “When I return I promise you I will not be a burden to the government because I now love Canada.”
She is just one of nine mothers and children who occupy the nine two-bedroom suites in La Salle. Each suite has a fully-equipped kitchen, furniture, television and food. Outside is a small, fenced playground for the children. The women, who can stay at La Salle for up to 12 months, are required to keep the apartments clean and neat. There are monthly inspections to ensure they do.
The centre is open to women of all faiths and cultures, says Sign of Hope chair Gerry Hood of St. Albert. Catholic Social Services has a staff of more than 1,200 and more than 2,000 volunteers scattered through 18 municipalities in central and northern Alberta.
Among that long list of volunteers is a number of St. Albert residents who sit on the CSS board or are vital members of the Sign of Hope campaign that helps CSS operate 130 different programs that serve about 60,000 people every year. That list would include two former Sign of Hope Campaign chairs — Bill Shields and Jerry Manegre — along with several key fundraisers who prefer to remain quietly behind the scene.
CSS offers housing and support for homeless women, for sexually-exploited street people, for those with mental and substance abuse issues, mediation services for parents and teens in conflict, support to women and children having fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, residential and outreach programs for people having physical and/or developmental disabilities, crisis support and support consulting for abused seniors, subsidized therapeutic consulting for individuals and families, and a wide range of settlement, language, housing, health and social support services to nearly 13,000 immigrants and refugees. That help is provided in 65 different languages.
Its overall budget is about $68 million and Hood says the $2.55 million they hope to raise through the Sign of Hope campaign is critical, not only in developing community services, but in ensuring CSS can get additional funding from governments.
And 91 cents of every dollar raised goes to client services, one of the lowest administration costs level of any charity.
Liz John-West is the supervisor of programs at La Salle. She’s a soft-spoken, likeable woman whose passion is being a caregiver, but whose real talent is giving hope to the women and children she’s working with.
“When you begin to meet these women, they are your sisters … you want to support and encourage them,” she says. “It is a privilege for me to work with and help these women. We get to see women when they come into the shelter … and how they get back on their feet and find a life.
Another of those sisters is Theresa, a mother of three from Africa who is pregnant. Just 29 years old, for five years she lived a life of terror, for herself and her children. With no friends and no family in Canada, she found herself abused physically and mentally by a drunken, mostly unemployed husband.
“He kept me locked in the house, didn’t allow me to have any friends, for five years,” she says. “He threatened that if I left he would have me deported. I prayed for God to help me out of this situation.”
One day a speech therapist who was working with her son arrived shortly after Theresa had had another violent argument with her husband.
“I asked her, please help me get out of this life. I have been shut into this house for five years.”
That night she and her children were taken to a woman’s shelter and later to La Salle.
“Here they have taught me how to protect myself and my children, how to change our lives for the better — how to have a future for myself and my children.”