Many of you may recognize Donna as a long-time volunteer at Surrey Women’s Centre. We had the chance to sit down with her to find out more about her many roles as a volunteer, representative, donor and advocate.
SWC: How did you first get involved with the Centre?
Donna: I began volunteering around 2006. I had just come out of a fairly rocky marriage and was looking for something meaningful to do. I started exploring volunteer opportunities at the Canadian Cancer Society and Surrey Women’s Centre popped up. It was kind of a fluke. I didn’t really know a lot about them at the time.
I started volunteering in the resource centre a couple of afternoons each week and what struck me was how little I really knew about violence and power-based crimes. I was really taken aback by the fact that this was really happening where we live. I got to know people and some of the incredible difficulties they’re dealing with. And how often it occurs. It’s shocking. Coming out of a difficult marriage, I had the ability to pay for counseling and get the help I needed. And these women didn’t. So, when I saw that there's a two-year waiting list for counseling, I found that really horrifying. I’m like what do these women do while they’re waiting? The stories I heard, they really stick with you. Just how strong these women were, pushing forward, how resilient. Some had no money and had to look after their kids. From then on, I wanted to do more to help.
After a year of volunteering, one of the workers at the centre encouraged me to go back to school to become a support worker. I was in my mid forties. The thought of going back to university was daunting, but I did it anyway.
When I was offered a practicum at Surrey Women’s Centre I jumped at it. That was right before graduation. I started on the crisis team and worked with them for several years. I’d be driving home from work and think oh, my gosh, I’ve got a house to go to and food in the fridge. I’m warm—all of those things that are important to make us feel safe and make a success of our lives. So many of these people didn’t have that. It was heartbreaking. I was part of the SMART (Surrey Mobile Assault Team) program when it started. I accompanied women to the hospital when they had just been sexually assaulted.
I’d be out in the community at night, and saw firsthand the people behind the statistics and the very real need for this program. We’d be on the streets at 2:00 am and they wanted us there. They welcomed us — and let us know if we hadn’t been out in a while. I did general counselling when women would come to the centre. They used to do a community kitchen and teach people how to cook on a budget — how you can have protein without meat or whatever — and I did that for quite a long time. We started taking them on the road to different transition houses and give cooking classes there.
I also sat on the Lower Mainland Opioid Overdose Crisis Group and learned a lot. It was a real eye opener.
When I heard that the SMART program didn’t have enough funding to keep going, I donated quite a bit of money myself. I really knew that it was an important service. I didn’t want to see it not happen because of a lack of money. So I’m very grateful that I was able to help with that. I had the money to give and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it, really.
Even though I don’t work there anymore, I continue to donate to Surrey Women’s Centre and encourage other people I know to donate as well. I learned an awful lot over the years that I was there and I’m always looking for ways to help.
I have a group of friends that just donated money to buy socks. There was a friend of mine who goes to a church that just gave Surrey Women’s Centre a grant. I’ve had a few people come in and wrap gifts at Christmas and I keep involved in things like that.
A lot of my friends were afraid for my safety when I was out there. I was kind of worried at first too, but you're pretty safe on the ground and the people were very grateful that we were out there. Even the men were like, “thank you for coming out for our women.”
You know these people are judged wherever they go. To have a place where they can come back time and time again for help and know that no one's going to judge them and that they’ll never be turned away. I love the Center for that.
When I’d talk to my friends about what I did for a living it would be hard for them to understand. They’d say, “why don’t those panhandlers get a job? Why are we giving them money?” If people are interested in listening, I’d say, “Let’s work backwards. How did they end up there? If you go back and talk to any of those people (panhandling) you’d have a better understanding of why they’re there today.
It felt like I wrecked a lot of dinner parties because, seeing what I’ve seen, I have a different perspective than a lot of people. And I’d speak up about it. They’d ask, “How can you do this work?” and I’d tell them, “How can I not?”
Talking really enables people to see that their preconceptions aren’t reasonable, really. You can’t help these women by pretending they’re not there.
Donna Balfour is a former outreach worker and longtime supporter of Surrey Women’s Centre.