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In 1972, a young volunteer for a Peterborough, Ontario, women’s organization found herself constantly answering calls from women seeking help because they wanted to exit domestic violence situations, often with children in tow, who had no money, no jobs, and no alternative living options. Lynn Zimmer, a 24-year-old journalist for the Peterborough Examiner and a former law student, hatched an idea with other volunteers to create a place for these families - not just a crisis centre, but a place that would feel like home in one of their times of greatest need.
A year later, the eleven women founded Interval House, the first domestic violence shelter not just in Canada but in all of North America. Before the home, women had to be referred to a local shelter for World War I veterans, which had a top floor reserved for families. There was nothing comforting about it - they had to stand in line for rations so meagre as a bar of soap.
Zimmer’s recruits included Billie Stone, Martha Ireland, Darlene Lawson, Chris Poulter, Suzanne Alexanderson, Katherine Hanson, Maggie Longdon, Marilyn Tinsley, Joice Guspie, and Elizabeth Johnson. They were inexperienced in funding but soon were each earning a salary of $100 a month plus expenses and had the funds for rent on a home, learning how to paint a house and do small repairs at the same time. They’d drive around town on trash collection night to see what furniture people were throwing out in the affluent neighborhoods.
The goal was for “...women to have a place to stay, that was temporary, that was an interval between what they were trying to leave in their old life that wasn’t working at all,” said Zimmer in 2017 when speaking with CBC Radio.
They opened the doors on the project Zimmer had dreamed of in early 1972 on April 1, 1973. We might say they started a movement but the truth is, this was pre-internet and news spread slowly. By 1980 there were more than 60 shelters in Canada and within another seven years, that number had increased more than fourfold. As honorable as the project had been, Interval House hadn’t inspired the trend. They actually each rose independently as the threat of domestic violence spun out of control.
Zimmer stayed at Interval House the longest of all the founders; after ten years she moved on to become the Executive Director at the Peterborough YWCA. She stayed on there until November of 2019, when she retired, and in the meantime she continued to contribute to the Interval House and volunteered with the Peterborough Women’s Business Network, the United Way, and the Community Foundation. The YWCA oversees two shelters and a housing unit for women who have escaped violence, and a counselling centre, so her work never left the domestic violence intervention and prevention realm.
Running the first shelter in North America, Zimmer was one of the first to see the statistics that are well known today, that women on average have seven failed leaving attempts before they successfully end a relationship.
In an interview with Journey Magazine in 2016, she said, “A big part of our work is helping women to believe in themselves again. Their first visit to a shelter may not be their last, but it’s the beginning of new possibilities.They see that people believe in them and a different kind of life for them.” She also through the YWCA made food security a focus, through kitchens and garden projects. “[W]e found that food was the magic that would bring people together...[w]e need food with dignity.”
Has life improved for women since the Interval House opened in 1973? The numbers are concerning at first sight - the Canadian Women’s Foundation says 6,000 women and children are housed in shelters on any given night and 300 are turned away because there isn’t enough room. In Peterborough, crisis call response increased by 58% between 2014 and 2015.
But that’s actually good news. Women didn’t have anywhere to call prior to 1973. Zimmer says, “Most people are aware now of violence within intimate relationships, and know it is wrong…[t]he safety and community support has gotten better...but the flow of women needing help hasn’t stopped.”
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Every two weeks we’d drive into town. We’d shop for food, pick up tractor parts, animal feed, eat a greasy burger, then in the early evening go to the “Zoo” and have two gin and tonics. One time, Rennie didn’t come. She was sick. I didn’t think anything of going alone with Peter, someone I worked with every day, my employer, someone who was married. Halfway back to town, Peter pulled the big old Cadillac onto the shoulder and turned off the engine. There were no other cars. There was a moment of silence and darkness. We were 10 miles from town and 10 miles from the house. An unease bloomed in me like ink in water. He slipped across the long bench seat toward me.
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