Harbouring a broken soul from years of abuse in her home country of Guyana, Diane Holder moved from Toronto to Victoria in 2003 to experience warmer winters and connect with nature.
She was homeless at the time and came across a sign at a community centre about Bridges for Women — a non-profit organization that provides employment training and support programs for women impacted by violence or abuse.
Once she found housing a year later, Diane enrolled with Bridges, marking the beginning of a new journey that gave her confidence she never knew she had.
“I experienced a lot of traumas in my life and I was going through a spiritual awakening where I knew why this and that happened and why this person was a part of it,” said Diane. “You have to let it go and move into your life and take responsibility.”
Diane pulled out of the program when she went back to Toronto to visit family and wound up staying there for two years. During that time, she also went back to Guyana to see if it was a place she could return, but wound up feeling traumatized seeing children being abused like she had.
“You have a house with seven people living in two rooms. The brother and sister are going to be climbing on top of each other. These are just natural ways of being and people don’t know how unhealthy it is because they don’t have a different experience,” said Diane, who came back to Victoria and reconnected with Bridges.
“When I came in, I was very distraught and not clear on what I would be doing. It felt really daunting doing this whole process again.”
Hearing stories like Diane’s brings tears to Victoria Pruden’s eyes.
Working as the executive director for Bridges, Pruden said the volume of people it serves has grown substantially, forcing the agency to move four months ago into a bigger space and new location on Douglas Street.
Bridges now has double the space it had before, allowing employees to run three full-time classes at the same time and accommodate at least 50 more trauma counselling sessions per month.
There’s also an expanded computer lab with 15 stations and two full kitchens that provide hot lunches on a regular basis.
“In the old space it was a nightmare. On our busiest days we have 60 or 70 women in here taking classes,” said Pruden. “We create a women’s community here of people that care about each other and care about the future together, and how we’re doing physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, which you don’t always get, especially in an urban environment where people can be very disconnected.”
Last year, Bridges helped more than 200 women complete full- time programming and had another 135 intake assessments with referrals to other services. An additional 358 women walked in for support. Some were experiencing a crisis.
The cases that program manager Jenny Holder sees have more complexity than before now that technology is being used to track people down and harass them. Staff have also been dealing with a lot more cases of women immigrating to Canada with their spouse in search of a better life, only to find themselves isolated and abused.
As for why Bridges is getting busier, Jenny believes it’s because more women are seeking help.
“It’s always been in the fabric of our communities and that still remains the same. What’s changing is that people are getting help and speaking out and they’re able to break out of those cycles,” she said.
“The more people we can reach, the better off our whole community is when the most vulnerable people are being helped and in turn able to contribute to the community.”
These days, Diane is on the right path towards fulfilling her goals. She lives in Victoria with her mother (who later moved here), found a job with a florist, along with a community of women who’ve helped make her stronger. Seeing the agency expand also fills her with pride.
“They make people think they can do anything. I came away with kick ass confidence,” she said, adding the journey and support blew her mind.
“Everybody has to do it at their own pace. Unless grace touches your life, you can’t pull it all together. It’s (Bridges) somewhere to do that when that little light opens up.”
Bridges for Women was established in Victoria in 1988 and offers women a six-month employment program that prepares them for the workforce, trauma counselling and mentoring, among other programs.