Every year we host several fundraising events for the North York Women’s Shelter, an anti-violence shelter for women and children located in the North end of Toronto. The NYWS underwent an enormous rebuild in 2019. Here you will find updates on their progress as well as notification of any current fundraising events for them at Birds.
You can donate directly to NYWS at any time here.
NYWS progress update, January 19, 2020
The Birds staff were very fortunate to have been offered a personal tour of the new North York Women’s Shelter in December 2019 by the Executive Director, Mohini, and Director of Development, Lindsay. It was an inspiring visit and helped me understand the value and necessity of what they’re doing even more, as well as the importance of continuing to bring support and awareness to the problem of violence against women and children as we enter the next decade.
To start the year off on a positive note, we were able to donate $2047 to the NYWS from our Boxing Week Sale fundraiser, so THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart for all of your support not only during the sale, but for the entire last year as well. I can’t believe Birds will have been ‘a thing’ for 13 years this February (time flies!), and being able to direct some funds towards an organisation like the NYWS is one of the greatest pleasures of being an entrepreneur for me.
Below is an update on the NYWS progress with a few photos. They’re scheduled to reopen their doors in a few weeks if all goes well!
For a quick visual on how far it's come in the last year, this was the NYWS the last time I saw it back in April of 2019:
And this was it in late December 2019!
NYWS is one of ten women’s shelters across Canada which was granted a significant amount of funding from the Federal government 2-3 years ago to put into upgrading or rebuilding their facilities.
The thing that makes NYWS so extraordinary is that they’re not just using the funding to rebuild a bigger, newer version of what they had before. They’ve taken the opportunity to actually rethink what a violence against women shelter should be, how and who it should serve, and have completely redesigned it from the inside out. It’s trans-inclusive, accessible, harm reduction focused, and it’s the first pet-friendly anti-violence shelter in Toronto EVER.
It's also designed in a way that simply makes it comfortable and welcoming for the women and children staying there, which is a consideration that has been lacking in many traditional shelters. No one should feel like they're being punished for needing shelter services.
Below are some highlights of design, accessibility and inclusion issues they are addressing, and features they have included in the new building.
The shelter and attached Community Collective are still in the finishing stages right now, and are not yet furnished, but I have to say that the moment I walked in I felt they had succeeded with the space. There isn’t a hint of institutional coldness about it. It’s modern and clean, but also feels welcoming and calming. The use of natural materials like wood, felt and cork give it a warm, grounded feeling.
The most beautiful area in the shelter is the dining and kitchen area. It’s bright and open while still feeling secure.
It looks out on a private, secure garden area and has a residents’ kitchen where the survivors living there can prepare food for themselves and their families, and share cooking skills. Preparing their own food is an important part of the healing process for many folks, and a way to take back autonomy and self determination in their lives. There's also an industrial kitchen where meals are prepared for residents who don't cook or for special meals. The industrial kitchen will also be used to offer cooking lessons and education about food security and create opportunities for food justice.
A beautiful and functional feature of the kitchen is a wall of locked wooden cabinets where each resident can keep their own pantry supplies secure. It eliminates the stress that often occurs in traditional shelters with shared pantry space when someone may take food you bought, intentionally or not, especially higher value specialty ingredients. When you're already living in a situation that's outside of your comfort zone, any reduction in these daily stressors makes a huge difference to quality of life.
There's also a children’s play area directly beside the kitchen so women can keep their children in their sight lines and know they are safe while they prepare meals. The play area hasn’t been furnished with toys, yet, but there is a beautiful child-size wooden table and stool set in the space that was custom built by Sheridan College students. In fact, the students at Sheridan College custom built much of the wooden furniture that will fill the space, from the dining room tables, to entryway benches, to a lovely wooden credenza.
The second floor houses the bedrooms - 17 of them total, 40% of which are fully accessible. They open off of a beautiful, open corridor that was designed to be wide enough for a child to ride a tricycle up and down - an important thing to consider in a building where 60% or more of the residents are children at any given time!
‘Way finding’ in the building is helped by each floor having a different theme for the names of the rooms: the basement rooms are named after root vegetables, the main floor is herbs, the second floor is trees, and the third floor is birds. We love birds :)
There's honestly so much more to say about the the new NYWS, I don't have space to get it all down today, but a few other other stand-out features include:
NYWS is the first pet-friendly shelter in Toronto, EVER! It was purpose built to accommodate pets with cat condos and dog kennels, pet friendly finishes on floors, and a pet lounge in the basement. Residents can even sleep in the pet lounge with their pet if they aren’t able to come up to the main shelter due to behavioural issues, fleas, or not being spayed/neutered. Most pets can stay with their humans in their private rooms though!
In approximately 85% of homes where there is violence, the family pets are harmed as well. One thing that came up consistently while NYWS was interviewing survivors to help with the design of the new shelter was that many women have delayed leaving unsafe domestic situations because they were afraid for the wellbeing of their animals if they left them behind. In their ongoing effort to remove as many barriers as possible to women seeking safety, being pet-friendly makes a huge difference.
How to safely and effectively accommodate transgender people in shelters continues to be a contentious and complicated issue. NYWS is moving this conversation forward in the right direction by taking the approach that there should be no issue. They basically serve any survivor of violence except cisgender men at the shelter. They are also committed to making space for trans-inclusive events and programming, and have a zero tolerance policy on trans-phobia. The increased space at the shelter (5 lounges, a huge backyard, the large dining room etc.) as well as the privacy available in washrooms and bedrooms, allow folks to develop new skills to live communally while also reducing potential for conflict.
NYWS is not a dry shelter. Shelters have traditionally had a zero tolerance policy for alcohol and drugs, which results in many women and children being turned away if a woman shows up smelling of alcohol or smoke.
Self-medication through alcohol and drugs is not an uncommon symptom of those who have suffered trauma. Turning women away because they smell of alcohol or marijuana is not helping anyone, and further isolates and stigmatizes those who need help.
There's currently only one other shelter in Ontario that’s not dry, but NYWS wants to build further on that model, not restricting residents to drink privately in their rooms there, which is not healthy for those struggling with addiction as it can exacerbate tendencies towards solitary binge consumption. As long as residents' behaviour falls within the community guidelines of respect for others, they can enjoy a drink in the communal spaces as they would in their own homes. NYWS also has sharps containers throughout the shelter which is important both to create a means for safe disposal of needles but also an important signal to residents that NYWS is a safe space to disclose drug use to staff and to be supported wherever they are in their journey with substance use.
On-site, trauma-informed design and services:
Survivors told NYWS in pre-design interviews that traveling to appointments can be taxing on their finances, emotional resources and safety at a time when they are in crisis. The Community Collective, that was built to adjoin the shelter, will house a trauma-informed primary care clinic for survivors of gender-based violence, run by the Black Creek Community Health Centre. It will provide trauma-informed, survivor-centric healthcare for both residents, and women and trans folks in the community. Services include primary health care, psycho-social education, health navigation and more, all delivered by specially skilled nurse practitioners doctors and other medical and social service staff.
Not having to leave the shelter to access all these services is vital, especially for women who are dealing with stalking from their partners. On-site services eliminate the safety issues of women having to wait on the street for the bus with their children, and help reduce their vulnerability overall.
In addition to the primary health clinic, the NYWS Community Collective building also has computers that women in the community can access in case they’re being stalked online at home. Also offered there are rotating services that are critical to women in rebuilding their lives, such as legal supports, counsel on immigration and settlement, food security, and housing. The city of Toronto has a shocking 80% turnaway rate for women who need emergency shelter because of violence. This means that most women calling for shelter can’t even make it in, so having these resources available to them to help them take steps towards securing their safety is essential.
The Community Collective building also has a 1000 sq ft multipurpose room that is bookable by the community (on a sliding scale!) outfitted with an art sink, mirror, smart tv and portable kitchen. It’s designed to be accessible to both survivors and allies in the community looking to host classes, yoga, art events, meetings, movie nights, and shows that are rooted in empowerment, creativity and healing for survivors. It’s sorely needed in a city where spaces to gather and create are disappearing, or becoming increasingly unaffordable, and especially needed in a service-poor area like North York.
All in all, the North York Women's Shelter is doing incredible, forward-thinking work not only in offering cutting edge services to women fleeing violence, but in bringing those services to the surrounding community as well so that women who may not yet be ready or able to leave an unsafe situation can get the information they need to make the best decision for themselves and their children when they feel the time is right.
NYWS progress update, May 2019
I've been working on an update on the North York Women's Shelter since visiting the building site a few weeks ago and wanted to share their incredible progress! We're going to be donating a portion of sales from our spring 2019 Studio Sale in June to the NYWS, and it was so inspiring to see how far they've come with the building. Actually being able to walk around the site allowed me to really understand all the incredible features they have designed into the new shelter.
Mohini Datta-Ray, the director of NYWS (and Birds fan!), led the tour of the shelter. She's an incredible woman, and is deeply and personally invested in her work at NYWS.
One of the many things I find so inspiring about this new shelter build is that NYWS is addressing so many gaps in services provided at traditional VAW (Violence Against Women) shelters through the design of their new building. Everything has been planned with the intention of reducing the institutional feeling associated with shelters, and of increasing comfort, dignity, and a feeling of security for the women and children staying at the shelter. The shelter was also designed by a firm that is owned and run by women, and is built sustainably and with environmentally friendly design where possible.
One example of the move away from an institutional feeling in the shelter is in the simple consideration given to the importance of privacy. The previous NYWS shelter had a total of 30 beds shared between 6 bedrooms, and with only 3 shared bathrooms. You can imagine that there simply wasn't much privacy for the women staying there with their children.
The new shelter is designed to provide up to 40 beds when necessary, but is currently funded to house 30 beds at a time. The huge change is that now the shelter has 17 bedrooms (!) to house those 30 beds, and each bedroom has its own ensuite bathroom. 40% of the bedrooms are fully accessible.
Bedrooms range from having a single bed with a crib, to rooms for up to 4 people. The rooms can also be joined together via secure, shared doors to allow larger families to be together. Many of the bathrooms also have tubs, which have not necessarily been available in other shelters, or if they have had tubs, the shared nature of the facilities has not been at all conducive to wanting to draw a bath for yourself or your children.
You can imagine any woman, having left a traumatising, unsafe situation, just wanting the simple, calming, normalizing ritual of being able to bathe herself or her children before bed in a clean, private tub, and to be able to settle for the night into a space that feels secure and private. These are the kinds of things that make an enormous difference in what is often one of the darkest moments of a person's life.
Another thing that came up during the tour of the building was that each bedroom has a small refrigerator so women can keep some things for themselves in their rooms, including medication that needs to be kept cold.
I hadn't thought about the logistics of this before but women have generally had to surrender any medications they take when they check in to a shelter (even things like Tylenol), and then have to go to the front desk to ask for it when they need it.
The rhetoric has been that it is to protect women in the shelter who might try to harm themselves, but NYWS is looking at the larger picture with issues like this and recognizing that while self-harm is a legitimate concern, it's not a reason to deny women access to their medication. The best solution doesn't lie in removing a basic right from all women, but in providing more support to the women who need it.
The refrigerators will allow clients to keep their medications in their rooms, and to be able to access them when they choose, as they would at home.
The shelter comprises four floors, with an enclosed outdoor area surrounded by an impenetrable 12 foot fence. The simple, but jarring, fact is that the fence is 12 feet high because two men with one standing on the other's shoulders can't climb over it. Facts like these remind me how important it is for women and children who have fled their homes to have a safe place to go in a time of crisis. The design is such that the layout of the building and grounds makes it difficult for people to see into the shelter, but manages to maintain a feeling of openness, space and light.
There is an industrial kitchen in the building so meals can be prepared for the residents, but there is a big, bright kitchen area for use whenever anyone wants it as well. NYWS wanted to make sure that the women staying there felt like they were able to cook for themselves, and not like they were just being provided meals. Cooking is part of the healing process for many people, and it also allows women to make familiar, comforting food for themselves and their children.
There is also a playroom adjoining the kitchen so mothers are able supervise their children while they are cooking and know they’re safe. On the whole, NYWS is trying to make the new shelter feel less institutional on every level than shelters have been designed to be in the past.
Part of that new approach is the addition of a welcome desk. It will feel more like a hotel reception or concierge experience than a traditional institutional intake procedure. The designers of the shelter have also created a lounge with a private bathroom right beside the welcome area to try to make the entry experience one of caring and warmth from the very start. Women can go into the lounge the moment they arrive and take some time to collect themselves in private. Those who arrive are usually traumatised, and they are also entering an unfamiliar environment, so this, like everything they are trying to do with the new shelter, is designed to help the whole intake experience be more comfortable.
NYWS has decided to officially give up the anonymity that has been the cornerstone of traditional women’s shelters and are hoping that this will help raise awareness as well, taking this issue from something that is whispered about in private to something that can be spoken about openly and productively.
Security concerns have kept women's shelters hard-to-find and anonymous in the past, but in today's world with mobile devices and social media, everyone knows where they are already. The rigid model that has traditionally been in place around shelters in order to maintain anonymity has actually resulted in women being pushed out of shelters for unintentionally compromising the location. Not a situation that was helping anyone.
Visibility in the community, and access are key to the new direction of the North York Women's Shelter. I'll give more information on this in another update, but there is going to be a Community Hub adjoining the shelter that will offer a range of support programs and resources where any women experiencing violence can find information, advice, or assistance. NYWS is hoping that the new public face of the shelter, and visible presence in the community, will allow more women to be aware of the services, and to be able to access the help they need.
One of the things Mohini said she often thinks about is whether there might have been a different outcome for Dr. Elana Frick had she had access to the services that the NYWS is going to be able to offer in their new facility. Dr. Frick was murdered by her husband in Toronto in 2016 and lived very close to where the shelter is located. Mohini wonders if the Community Hub services had been available at the time, whether Dr. Frick might have come in to seek counsel or to get help. She was not the typical woman you’d think of in terms of being in need of shelter services, but if you looked at her profile you would have seen that she had been very high risk for a long time.
This is the crux of the issue. Violence affects so many women and children, and it's probably not who most of us assume it would be looking at the surface facts of people's lives. Unless we have personal experience with shelters or domestic violence, we tend to think of these things as being ‘other people’ issues.
I’ve had way too many women in my life tell me that they have been physically assaulted by their partners or exes, stalked or otherwise terrorised by them in some way, often involving threats towards their children. Just in the last month a long time Birds customer told me she had left a physically and emotionally abusive husband, and that she and her children were being stalked by him. One older acquaintance told me her first husband used to hit her all the time, until she found the courage to leave him.
It's all of us who are and who can be affected by violence. We hope we never need to seek shelter and assistance, but it gives me so much comfort to know that if we do, there is a place like the North York Women's Shelter to catch us in that dark moment.
Thanks for reading all of this - I know it's a lot of information! It's important to me to try to spread the word about this shelter for many reasons. Not only do they need the ongoing financial support that businesses like Birds can help facilitate, but it's also important to raise awareness about violence against women and children, and to have honest conversation about it.
If you feel moved to do so, you can always make a donation to NYWS directly here:
Thank you from all the Birds!!
Update on the Riya Rajkumar Amber Alert initiative, July 2019
We've finally got our numbers in for the Akikiki dress fundraiser for the North York Women's Shelter. Back in February of 2019 we dedicated 100% of the profits from the sale of our Granny's Orange Bedroom Akikiki dress to NYWS in memory of Riya Rajkumar.
I'm so happy to say we were able to raise $1990.20 for the NYWS in memory of Riya, thanks to all of you, and are going to make a final donation to them of $2000. We still have a few dresses left, and you can rest assured that all the profits from the sale of this dress will continue to go to NYWS, whether purchased on sale or not, so you can still snap one up as part of this sale or a future sale and know the profits are going to a worthy cause.
We're so grateful to have been able to bring some light and love to the memory of this special girl after her tragic passing. Thank you all for all of your support with this.
February 15, 2019 - in memory of Riya Rajkumar
Many of us in Ontario received the Amber Alert on our phones late last night. I was reading in bed when it came in at around 11:30 pm and sent a silent wish to the universe that they would find the girl and her father before anything bad happened. When the second alert came in around 12:30 saying that they had located the father, I hoped she was safe and went to sleep.
This morning, we all woke up to the worst news. 11 year old Riya Rajkumar’s body had been found. She had been killed by her father. It has been on my mind all day.
I feel angry and sad. Angry at the profound betrayal of parent/child trust, and deeply sad for the loss of a valuable life that was taken by someone who had no right. More than anything, I feel like I want this to stop happening.
Earlier today I made a personal donation to the @northyorkwomensshelter in memory of Riya. If you don’t know where to put your pain, I urge you to do the same. A link to their donation page is below:
NYWS donation page: https://www.canadahelps.org/en/dn/10634
I take comfort in knowing that every day, the kind, empathic people at NYWS are providing refuge for women who fear for their safety and the safety of their children, helping them heal from the trauma of abuse and violence, and supporting them in rebuilding their lives. It’s no small thing.
In honour of Riya, we’re also going to be donating all of the profits from the sale of our Akikiki dress in Granny’s Orange Bedroom to the North York Women’s Shelter. It’s the most joyful dress in our collection this season and, though we’ll never have the chance to know Riya, the bit I’ve read about her and the pictures I’ve seen make me think she was someone who would appreciate a colourful, fun dress. We’ll have it available next week - more info to come on that.
Thanks for considering making a donation to NYWS in memory of Riya and sharing this if you are moved to.
Together we are mighty. 💙
Image of Riya is courtesy of her aunt's Instagram page @rasheeda_ali