Navigating crisis with innovation: How Covid-19 impacted the Victoria Women’s Transition House
In Episode 6, Smart Dolphins Virtual Chief Information Officers Paul and Ty talk with Susan Howard, development director of the Victoria Women’s Transition House (VWTH).
Susan shares the ways in which the organization has had to make major adjustments in how they deliver services. Some of these changes include, relocating women and children from their regular communal housing to a hotel to allow for social distancing. Other transitions include setting up staff to work remotely and implementing a digital platform so that women will continue to have access to counselling.
In the midst of these operational changes, the organization has had to deal with an increase of calls from women fleeing violence here on Southern Vancouver Island — a reality that is unfortunately, very common in times of crisis.
Susan gives thanks to the community for the ongoing donations and highlights the generosity of local businesses who are helping to raise funds for the VWTH.
The first thing I think we need to recognize regarding the work that we do is that until there is significant societal change, unfortunately, services like ours are still going to be in the community. Transition House alone helps over 2000 women and 150 children and youth each year directly through our shelter and counseling services. But with the pandemic, it….forced us like many folks in the community to be more innovative, to really flex to keep our mission front and center, which is to support women and kids that are impacted by gender-based violence.
Click to read the full transcript
Paul: And welcome to Island thrive our weekly podcast. Today, I’m Paul Holmes, your host, and today my co-host is Ty Hedden, who is a vCIO here at Smart Dolphins. Ty how are you this morning?
Ty: Doing well, thanks Paul.
Paul: Good. And special guest with us today from Victoria Women’s Transition House, is Susan Howard, the Development Director. Welcome, Susan.
Susan: Hi, thanks for having me.
Paul: How are you doing? How are you managing these days?
Susan: Okay, it’s been very busy.
Paul: Well, busy is good. It keeps you less focused on all the craziness in the world of around us.
Susan: And there is a lot going on, yes, indeed.
Paul: Yeah, it’s so crazy. So why don’t we begin. Tell us a little bit for those who maybe haven’t heard of VWTH, what is the mandate and what are some of the services that you offer in the community?
Susan: Sure, sure, thanks. So VWTH provides emergency shelter for women and their children who are fleeing gender-based violence, so domestic abuse, and in addition to the shelter that we have, we also offer a variety of counseling programs and supports for women and their kids as well as specialized programs for older women whose needs might be a little bit different. Yeah, so I’m happy to share a bit about the shelter itself and our history. So women can access our services, our services are for women who are experiencing or have experienced domestic abuse, which we now frequently call gender-based violence or intimate partner violence, and abuse, of course, is not just physical violence, but we do include psychological abuse, financial abuse, any aspect of power and control that one individual may have over another, and in our services, we do support women and their kids.
So if someone was wanting to leave their abusive situation or just explore the options, we would invite them to call our crisis and information line, which is a 24-hour telephone line that’s answered all the time by our staff and trained volunteers. And they can ask any questions they like about their particular situation, about the services available, if they feel they need to leave their partner, they need to leave, that they’re not safe in their home, our counseling staff will counsel them through a safety plan and help them plan for a departure. Unfortunately, the point at which a woman decides to leave an abusive partner can be the most dangerous, so it’s a very thoughtful process, a very careful process, there’s a lot of safety protocols that are suggested, and this is of course to keep women in their kids safe. So we have the crisis line, we have a shelter that has 18 beds, eight bedrooms, and it’s located in a confidential location in Victoria, in a really lovely neighborhood, and to be able to access the shelter, women need to call the crisis line and see if there’s room and make those arrangements.
And then beyond the shelter itself, where women and their kids can stay for up to 30 days, we also offer all kinds of fabulous counseling programs to help support women and kids to try to find some balance and to find really a healthier life.
Paul: Have you seen an uptick in inquiries as a result of what I would assume would be sort of the unfortunate consequence (one of many) unfortunate consequences of the pandemic right now?
Susan: I know, yeah. So it’s really interesting, the progression of folks reaching out to us. At the front end of the pandemic, we had a surge of calls and inquiries, and then once the lockdown started, it became very quiet, and apparently this is not uncommon in times of crisis, perhaps new to our generation here in Canada. And of course, it was because women were, families were containing, just like you were saying Paul, they were contained in their homes. And so yes, those small irritations and being with the same people 24 hours a day in a small space really can be difficult, and so our expectation is and it started that as the restrictions had been lifted, we are starting to see more calls to our crisis line and more women reaching out for help. And it’s very alarming because as I mentioned, the most dangerous time for a woman is when she leaves her partner or starts to make those plans to leave her partner. So we’re very concerned for women and we’re here and we are ready to help, but it’s starting to get quite busy, yes.
Paul: I want to switch gears a little bit to how your organization is managing during the pandemic. We asked all of our guests on the podcast, what changes they’ve made, how they’ve managed to move forward? And I do want to, for those listening, want to jump a little bit into fundraising as well, because it’s a critical time for a lot of non-profits, but especially ones like yours. But we’ll split those up into two topics. So maybe starting out with how your organization made the transition to maybe work-from-home or other arrangements that you made, and I guess how you keep women and their kids safe in the shelter situation?
Susan: Well, it was very different that’s for sure. When the physical distancing measures we’re introduced, we had to transition from and move our women who are in the shelter because it’s a purpose-build house, but it is still a home with common areas, large kitchen, common living room, that type of thing. So we moved the women into a hotel, a motel here in Victoria that again, that was at a confidential location, and we provided support at the hotel. So the women and their kids were able to have their own hotel room with their own bathroom, and there were kitchenetes in these rooms, and we were able to deliver groceries to the women so they could cook their own meals, of course at the shelter, the meals are cooked for the group as a whole and folks eat together. But of course, they couldn’t do that. And so the groceries were delivered and then we provided counseling support right at the hotel location, so using physical distancing as well, and still trying to support the women and provide the resources that they might need to seek legal advice, financial advice, all of the usual support services that we offer, so that was the first big change for sure.
And then all of our staff are working from home and in working from home, our counselors were very concerned…We were all very concerned about our clients that the counselors could no longer see face-to-face, they were reaching out by telephone, which was good, they were also delivering care packages to some of our families right to their stoop and then of course physically distancing with a short hello. But what was really exciting was introducing something that we’ve talked about a little bit, but I think I was fast-tracked it as a result of Covid and that was a digital platform, so that our counseling staff can speak face-to-face through a digital platform with some of our clients. And the staff are starting to use that both in a group setting, so like a zoom style group check-in, as well as one-on-one with the clients. And one of the biggest concerns for us was, of course, security and safety for our women. So that was a big consideration in the selection of the platform that was selected. We had to make major adjustments with continuing our service delivery, so both in the administrative support of our organization and our clients, but then certainly the frontline counseling services.
Ty: It’s so interesting to hear about that, that pivot, and that’s something that we’re seeing in every industry, but I can imagine the logistics with the work you do is, is quite a bit more complicated when you really have people under your care, really trusting and relying on you. It must be quite a worrying time to be living a shelter and then a pandemic hits and all of a sudden you’re not quite sure what things going look like. And that you were able to move people to hotel and transition things so smoothly is really quite incredible. And I think that it’s kind of analogous to what a lot of businesses have been forced to do with many of the core services they offer, like the digital platform that you mentioned, that’s something that we’re seeing with almost every client right now, they are needing to introduce something to provide basic continuity for what they provide to their clients and having to do it very quickly, in most cases, while still keeping things secure. That’s been a big part of my day-to-day is helping to establish a criteria for those things, what are the elements that we need to look for to make sure that while we’re getting services back on track quickly, we’re not setting ourselves up for major risk and say a security breach and that type of thing. Do you feel like that platform is something that you’ll continue to use long-term and maybe even grow more into online services, that type of thing?
Susan: I think so. The feedback that I’ve heard from the counseling staff and then from the counseling staff, the feedback they’ve heard from the clients is very positive. And the other part of it is that it’s supplements our other counseling, so right now, it supplements telephone counseling. But once we’re back able to meet face-to-face with our clients, then we can just in theory, continue the digital option. The other thing that’s really interesting is that we’ve had a couple of (and this sort of brings in the fundraising) I was able to secure a few grants for programs that are group based. So one of them is a program called, it’s through our Children’s Counselling it’s called the Peace Program. And our children’s counselors go into schools and they deliver workshops on respectful relationships and good communication skills. And these workshops are tailored to the age of the children, and it’s group presentation. So clearly, number one, there was no school, (and we can’t do group presentations because of Covid and all of the concerns and physical distancing), so we quickly switched gears and are in the process of creating a video that is being shot in the outdoors with physical distancing and it’s a conversation between our two counseling staff and they’re basically delivering the group workshop program in a video format, (I think it’s 10 or 15 minutes). It’s quite brief, but the important thing is we will push this out through social media, and put it on our website and get it out in other ways to use and probably once again, if the funding will continue, that can be another tool for our counseling services. It’s continuing the in-person group counseling and the one-on-one, as well as having some digital options.
Ty: I love that innovation. One thing that just came back to mind was a few years ago, I remember discussing one really neat thing that the Transition House had done, which was bringing in tablets for storytelling or lead children to be able to tell their side of an experience and I just thought that was so neat and quite forward-thinking. The other thought I had as well as it sounds like there’s a proactive element here in being able to reach kids early on so they can recognize unhealthy situations and prevent them from ever needing or ever finding themselves in those unhealthy relationships, is that accurate?
Susan: Yeah, no, it’s totally true. Yeah, and research does show that there is a possibility that violence and abuse can be intergenerational. So it’s so important that children who are exposed to domestic abuse, gender-based violence, that they have the opportunity to receive some counseling and some support to help them try to make sense of what is going on, and just to receive that support so that they can move forward in having healthy relationships in their future as well.
Paul: Yeah, it’s so amazing the technology that has been available to us around education and learning, and I know for us, we were doing a lot of in-person training before all of this, and we switched gears and started doing a lot of online training because it was still needed. In fact, it was needed more than ever, and we lost the ability to or have people into our office do all that training in person. And so it’s great from an education perspective that you’re able to sort of shift gears like that.
I think the big concern, and we’ve seen a lot of this is tools like Zoom and Teams, which are fantastic for many things, are definitely not the right tools for things like discussing your very personal details, be they financial or abuse or counseling-related things, is just the security just shouldn’t, in my opinion, shouldn’t be trusted to be locked down for those things, so it’s great that you guys were able to find a secure solution to do that. A lot of organizations, and I don’t fault any of them by any means, but they sort of rushed to get something in place, right. And obviously, having sensitive information being discussed on a zoom call, for example, isn’t ideal in best case scenario.
So let’s talk a little bit about fundraising, because obviously, and I think you had mentioned before the show, about 40% of your budget every year comes from fundraising. Did I catch a number?
Susan: That’s right, that’s right.
Paul: That’s a little daunting in the middle of a pandemic. So maybe share some thoughts on that? Obviously, you’re not having gala dinners and you’re not doing a lot of networking in-person, so what are some of the things that you’ve tried that have been successful?
Susan: Yeah, well, it’s true. We do have to raise about 40% of our budget every year. So every April 1st is the start of our new fiscal, so we started our new fiscal in the middle of the pandemic, so April 1st, I start from pretty much zero and build up to support our programs throughout the year. So, all events have been canceled. We are very, very fortunate to be the beneficiary of a number of annual fundraising events, as well as events that just pop up, and some of those events, of course, are completely gone, or they are postponed into 2020 or later 2021. But other folks have done some pretty innovative stuff, and again, these are tools that have been available to us in the community for a long time, but of course, one of the things that’s come up is online auctions. So we have a couple of supporters that are doing online auctions for us. We also have people that typically give to us every year that had moved up their donation. So I just recently launched a direct mail campaign for fundraising, which I do every spring. I was a little bit late this year because there was so much going on, but we did notice that even before we got the mail out, that we did have some supporters coming forward early to make their gift because they were anticipating that there was going to be need. And indeed, we have had tons of additional expenses in moving to the digital platform, in working to provide many of our clients with loner laptops and tablets so that they can communicate with us in a manner other than telephone. But events are pretty much switched out, people have been quite generous with not just financial contributions, but they’ve contacted us to ask what it is we do need, which…what a great question. What do you need? And so we’ve had folks come forward with all kinds of care packages that we have passed along to our clients, people have created accounts for us at a couple of the local independent bookstores where we can go and purchase books and to pull from that bank of funds that’s been set up for us, and with those books, we can distribute them in the care packages to our clients. So I mean, people have been pretty creative in how they’ve been supporting us.
Paul: Well, that’s good to know. I think with the financial situation for a lot of people, they’ve been laid off or their hours have been cut, or their situations have changed. I think there’s a lot of generous people that just can’t be as generous right now. So of course, we hope is that for people that can continue to support that they’ll double down a little bit and dig a little deeper and try to support. I think there’s a good message for all of us who are still gainfully employed to the charities that we support, to try to be a little bit more supportive in recognition of the people that aren’t in a situation where they’re able to support our charities that we care so much about.
Susan: So, you know, Paul, sorry to interrupt you there, but… No, I just wanted to add on as well but one of the things I thought was so wonderful about, as an example, this credit that some folks in the community created for us at this independent bookstore was a move not just to support a charitable group that could really use the support, and we truly thank them for that. But it’s also supporting the local businesses. And I think that as charities, we look to local businesses throughout the year to help us out with our auctions, we’re asking them for the donation of the get certificates and items to help us fundraise. And our local community, our local businesses have been so generous, and I would encourage us all now more than ever, please support our local charities (don’t get me wrong) but I really do think that this is the time to support our local businesses here in Victoria, and so I thought that was so interesting that this particular individual that started the book credit at the independent bookstore really had that in mind. It was supporting us, but it was also supporting a local business.
Paul: And that’s a common theme, we’ve seen it cross the podcast and that’s not going to change. The reality is, I think a lot more people are thinking a lot more about local, and that’s great to see, obviously, you can’t get everything you need from a local business, but certainly when I go to purchase something now, my first thought is, is there a local business I can support by purchasing this item that I need, right? Because we want those businesses to get through this, and if they’re not, then it not only hurts them which are real people that run these businesses “mom and pop,” as they say, right. But it also hurts the community more broadly, because if they’re not going to thrive, then they’re not going be in a situation where they can help important charities, they’re not going to be in a position where they can contribute, they are going to be in a position where they need help. Yeah, I think now more than ever a lot of people are thinking about that too. Ty you had some thoughts on that too.
Ty: Just something really clicked for me the first time you mentioned the bookstore thing, I thought, “well, that is wonderful.” But then when you mentioned that, it just really helps that local business, I think it just really underscores how interconnected everyone in Victoria and on the South Island are. If you can help the business, which in turn helps a non-profit, that business can continue to run and maybe they don’t have to layoff employees, and maybe that means less pressure at home for a person that can continue to work…right. It’s a healthier outcome for not just businesses, but individuals, and I think that’s so key. We’re going to be in this for a while, and I think really looking out for each other and in our local community is going to have a huge impact on how we walk out of this. And the individual experiences that will come out of this because it’s going to be vastly different for many people. It’s a very tough time or for many in community right now.
Paul: In closing, I would sort of ask, and it’s a difficult question, but it’s one that I’ve tried to phrase in a healthy way, which is, is there a silver lining to this? We’ve obviously…we’ve been through a lot of terrible situations, obviously, but is there something that you’ve learned as an organization or in the way that you operate that is going to be part of the legacy of this that is going to be really positive in the future. Obviously, there’s the online secure communication that you’re able to do, and I know you were mentioning as well about the crisis line, and there might be opportunities there to use other technology as well, but do you see some really positive things coming out as much as it is difficult to focus on that?
Susan: Well, you’re right in that it is difficult. I mean the fact of the matter remains, I have some statistics here just in reference to this part of the conversation. 12 people die each year in BC as the result of injury sustained from gender-based intimate partner violence and abuse, I mean, there are all these statistics. So the first thing I think we need to recognize regarding the work that we do is that until there is significant societal change, unfortunately, services like ours are still going to be in the community. That’s kind of the negative part of it, the positive part of it is thank God, there are services like ours in the community. Transition House alone helps over 2000 women and 150 children and youth each year directly through our shelter and counseling services. But with the pandemic, it has, I think, forced us like many folks in the community to be more innovative, to really flex to keep our mission front and center, which is to support women and kids that are impacted by gender-based violence, and how are we going to do that if we can’t meet with them face-to-face, how are we going support them?
So again, the digital platform, more phoning, the sort of interesting care package, spot visits on the porch of families that we have that type of connection with and that’s a safe thing to do. And then just again, we couldn’t have the women and the kids in the shelter because of physical distancing, so let’s get them into hotel rooms. So, I think it’s encouraging us, forcing us to be more creative and more flexible in the way that we will continue service delivery. We have looked into and are looking into a possible text chat function again, very cautiously, because we’re very concerned about security of our clients, but I’m hopeful that that will be something that will be in the future. And then I think just in closing, in saying partnerships continuing these terrific partnerships, an organization like Transition House has with businesses in the community, like Smart Dolphins, like a lot of other organizations. It’s those partnerships that really help us do what we need to do to support our women and kids and to help us have a healthy community.
Ty: That’s fantastic. My kind of last thought was, I guess, especially for individuals, circling back to that fantastic question you were posed earlier, what is the best way that people can help support Transition House right now?
Susan: Well, in terms of support, we always need financial support, the financial support will help support us secure what we need to secure to allow us to continue to do our counseling and to provide the supports we need for our clients. So a financial contributions are enormously appreciated and if I can just do a pitch here. Our website is https://www.transitionhouse.net/ and there is a donation application on the website. It is a secure platform for giving a financial contribution to Transition House and that would be awesome. I also really want to say if there’s anyone out there that needs support, that’s looking for support or has questions about intimate partner violence and abuse or perhaps has an observed a situation of a friend or family member that they’re wondering if that is abusive behavior or not, those are the kind of questions that our staff and volunteers are ready to answer on our crisis and information line, and that number, Paul may I leave that number?
Susan: It’s 250-385-6611, and it’s also on pretty much on every page of our website.
Paul: 250-385-6611. Okay, good. Yeah, so it’s good to know that if you don’t have to be the person in crisis to call that line, you can get information if you have concerns about other people, neighbors or family members. Thank you so much again, Susan, for being with us. Thanks for joining us today, Ty. It’s been enlightening. And once again, just thank you so much for all the hard work that you guys do to serve our community, I wish we didn’t need services like yours, but we do. And please visit https://www.transitionhouse.net/ and make a donation today.