When I was 7 years old, my mother decided to take me and my two older brothers to a hotel in St. Catharines for a “weekend vacation”. I remember how happy I was to be able to spend a weekend with my brothers where we could fool around without fear of being yelled at or struck. I remember getting out of the car exclaiming, “Yay, a yell-free weekend!” When my mother heard that, she knew that what she was doing was the right thing for her kids. It wasn’t long before she explained to us in the hotel room that we wouldn’t be returning to live at that house anymore, in fact we wouldn’t be living with our father anymore. Obviously as children, my two brothers (9 and 11 years of age) and I had a million questions. Why? How? Will we ever see him again?
For us, being hit and screamed at was simply a part of growing up. Whether you had ruined a pair of pants or walked in front of the television, you knew that you had earned yourself some form of discipline. Another fact of life was seeing my father with a beer in his hand. I never noticed it much as a kid, but looking back on it now I realize that I don’t know much about my father other than he liked to drink, a lot. Needless to say, my father was an abusive alcoholic, and this was the reason my mother decided to protect her children and leave my father.
After a few weeks of hopping from hotel to hotel and having stopped back at my old house to pick up my few belongings: my teddy, my blanket and whatever else I had to my name, I remember settling down in a new, very unfamiliar home, the old Women’s Place shelter on Thorold Stone Road. During this time, my brothers and I continued to go to school as usual and tried to continue being kids as much as we could.
I remember a few treats about the shelter. I remember them packing our lunches and having pudding in my lunch for the first time ever. I remember sharing a room with my family, which was always fun. Most importantly, I remember feeling safe. I remember feeling at ease despite being in a foreign environment. Being away from my father was both heart-breaking and relaxing. Heart-breaking in the sense that he was my father and I didn’t know when or if I’d see him again. Relaxing because if I dropped food on the ground I wouldn’t have to brace myself for an incoming swat on the head. As much as I wasn’t used to the place, it was home and it was a step toward a new beginning with a new family who loved each other dearly.
Coming from an abusive environment, my mother frequently had to come to school to speak to the teachers about my aggressive behaviour toward other students. I constantly bullied and hurt all my classmates without realizing at all what I was doing. I was a pure product of my environment. Weeks after my mother and father separated, my teacher called my mother to the school to talk to her about my recent behaviour. I couldn’t overhear the conversation, but I remember my mother tearing up and my teacher looking similarly upset. I thought I had gotten into some serious trouble, potentially expelled from the school. Years later, my mother would explain to me what my teacher had seen: A child that had been a bully and a menace to other children on the school grounds completely changing and beginning to relent in his aggressive ways. In all but a month I was no longer bullying, no longer mean and no longer abusive toward the other children. My mother could not help but cry because she was so glad.
To quickly fast forward, my family and I settled into a little house in Niagara Falls and quickly began to patch our lives together, moving in, creating new memories and enjoying each other’s company. My brothers and I had visits with our father under court orders but none of us really wanted to visit him. I think we realized that whatever he had done to make my mother leave him was enough to make us not want to see him. He occasionally would come to our hockey games but never made a true effort to re-connect with us.
The Women’s Place shelter was the place my brothers and I needed to be able to mend the wounds of my parents’ separation. Was it my dream home? No. Was it the optimal situation? No. Was it exactly what we needed? Absolutely. It was a place where my family could grow closer together and move towards our bright future. The reason why Women’s Place means so much to me is that it was a place where my mother knew she was safe. It was a place that gave her a chance to get back on her feet and allowed her to care for her children. It was a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs. It was a safe haven in a time of dire need. It was maybe the most important part of my family’s journey back to being whole and healthy. For that I am forever grateful.
Women’s Place was most definitely the stepping-stone to a better life. Today, my brothers and I have a strong relationship with our mother. We have all attended post-secondary educational institutions and we are all strong young men. I believe that is a product of the help that Women’s Place was able to provide.