Fighting to Give Women a Fighting Chance
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Fighting to Give Women a Fighting Chance

Toronto's largest women's shelter, built on a heritage-listed site, is on the hunt for a new home. Recently, one unique fundraiser helped to raise money for it.

Last Friday 300 Muay Thai kick-boxing enthusiasts flocked to the Great Hall for the second Girl Fight this year, a bid to help raise money for the largest women’s crisis and relief centre in Toronto, Nellie’s.

The notion of hosting a kickboxing night to shed light on women’s issues like domestic violence may seem a little screwy at first, but for organizer Anna Von Frances it made complete sense.

“How much we raise, it’s never going to be enough,” the thirty-year-old founder of official event host Pink Mafia told us. But, she continued, “after I visited Nellie’s shelter I knew something like this event could change their lives. It’s a chance to showcase women in combat sports—and showcase confidence—and to give back to women who need a bit of a hand.”

The Great Hall is no shabby venue when it comes to hosting boxing events; the ring is an official size (20 by 20 feet) and the second tier allows viewers to peer down on the fighters. What they saw: a range of all-female kickboxing events, with fighters from a variety of clubs from around the GTA bashing it out in four main amateur fights, with demos and sparring hit outs wedged in between the main sets.

Von Frances had been boxing for just under two years. She turned to the combat sport as an alternative exercise treatment when she became ill, but says it gave her the confidence to do things she never considered doing before, like running through a ravine by herself any time of the day or night. “I don’t worry about getting raped anymore. The confidence it gives you is incredible,” she said. “Most women don’t park underground and are forever looking over their shoulder late at night. Boxing gave me the confidence to defend myself, or at least be able to get away.”

Girl Fight raised $3,000 for the 36-bed shelter, which is at full occupancy and facing overwhelming upkeep costs associated with their 130-year-old site. Nellie’s owns the property it operates on, but has to cough up an estimated $60,000 each year for maintaining the aging building where rusty pipes, leaks, and cracked walls are common. (The province funds 26 of Nellie’s beds through the Ministry of Community and Social Service’s violence prevention program; the City of Toronto funds the other 10 beds through the Homeless Initiative.) Because the shelter sits on a heritage-listed site, the organization is unable to expand its current home into a larger facility that would give its tenants the privacy they need. Their latest Promise of Home campaign is in aid of an effort to build a new and bigger home in the community.

We went on a tour of Nellie’s recently, during which it became abundantly clear why there is a push for a bigger space.

When you enter through the high-tech security wooden doors you are left standing in the lobby, the busiest hub inside the home. To the left is the security room with a handful of split screen being monitored 24 hours a day. In a setting like Nellie’s security is a must. They’ve had cases where former spouses have tried to interact with the shelter, and the women in question had to be moved to different locations, sometimes even to a different city within the province.

Straight ahead is the stairwell that leads to the residents’ rooms. We walk past a woman standing next to the notice board, notepad in hand, reading the latest job postings. The board is plastered with self-help programs for “women in need.” Something catches her eye and she scribbles furiously. To the right is the common area, with one table and some chairs and a television. One woman is glued to the TV set while two woman sitting at the table look startled by commotion in the lobby. One lady, speaking in an eastern European dialect, is using a communal phone in what looks like a bathroom transformed into a makeshift phone booth.

Downstairs, a series of rooms run along a winding hallway like an underground rabbit den. Most of the small rooms are filled with food for the shelter and clothes donated for the women by the public. There is a play area for women who have children; it’s littered with toys, miniature bicycles, and soft play mats. The “Quiet Room” is for staff that need space to sleep or take a break during their shifts. The room also hosts meetings to discuss issues like domestic violence, and not just for the women of the shelter, as the doors are also open to the public. On the walls are written notes from a previous meeting with various word triggers: rape, bashed, physical abuse.

Wendy Sung, the organization’s development manager, who has been with the shelter for the past 10 years said it’s a rarity that you’d find a shelter that provides support for women fleeing domestic violence and also accommodation for homeless women. “Doing both adds to the complexities and is demanding,” Sung said. “It’s a twenty-four-hour operation. We have to turn away women all the time, but we always find them a place to eat and sleep—sometimes it’s in the city, other times it’s a bit further away.”

Nellie’s was established in 1973 and named after social activist Nellie McClung, who fought for gender equality in Canada, most famously by helping pave the way for women to be able to vote federally. Sung says that the women you’ll find at the shelter come from all corners: “There’s no demographic here, people assume it’s just women connected to domestic violence or the homeless, but we really do get a broad mix of women with serious issues.” Some have been laid off from work and haven’t been able to land on their feet, others are recently divorced and don’t have anywhere to go next.

Last year Nellie’s provided shelter to 167 women and their children. Sung said finding another location is crucial so that they can expand their services. “Ideally we’d like to find a location to build on it, somewhere in the city,” she said. “But that all depends on funding from various government groups and organizations—it’ll dictate what we can do and where we can do it.”