Anyone entering Iris Kirby House is automatically greeted with a warm, welcoming environment. There's a cosy living room with a TV, a large kitchen and a toy area where small children, oblivious to the reasons why they're there, giggle and play. Staff are liberal with smiles and hugs.
The facility is a safe haven for women and their children who must flee domestic abuse at home, and is the only shelter of its kind in St. John's. The next closest is O'Shaughnessy House, run by the same foundation in Carbonear. It's a 22-bed shelter where abused women and their children can stay until they get back on their feet, availing not only of accommodations, but group empowerment sessions and other counselling and services, as well as a support network to help them transition - if they wish - into a new life.
February is typically Iris Kirby House's busiest time of year, with Christmas bills coming in. If there's a history of abuse in a family, says executive director Gail Tobin, it often escalates around this time.
Last year, spurred on by a series on domestic violence written by arts/life reporter Tara Bradbury, The Telegram established Warm Hearts, a campaign to raise awareness, funds and winter clothing for the residents of Iris Kirby House. Under patron Lynda Boyd, who plays Rose Doyle on CBC-TV's "Republic of Doyle," donations of pyjamas and other winter clothing items were collected from Telegram readers, community groups and businesses throughout January and February. The campaign ended with "Stars for Warm Hearts," a concert at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre hosted by Boyd, featuring The Novaks, Mary Barry, Repartee, comedian John Sheehan, The Neighbourhood Strays bellydancers, Mark Critch, Shaun Majumder, Jeanne Beker and more. All told, Warm Hearts raised more than $10,000 and almost 3,000 items of clothing for Iris Kirby House.
The money was used in a few different ways, Tobin says.
"The big part of it would be to help those women who come here with nothing," she says. "Women who might need to buy sneakers for their children for school, or it might mean getting a woman who's moving out some minutes on her cellphone until she could get more stabilized. For our programs, we were able to buy some extra videos or group work or important literature for the women to read. It just provided us with so many options that we could use to help women. It was wonderful."
The pyjamas and other clothes, Tobin says, were given to residents as part of a welcome package when they came to the shelter. Friday night is movie night, she says, and the women and children were able to cosy up in new, comfy nightclothes to watch a DVD.
"This is what the staff would say to the women: those pyjamas are from the Warm Hearts campaign. For people who feel they're the only person going through this, it told them there are thousands of people who care about you right now. It might only be a small thing to some people, but it's major to somebody else who's going through being abused. Their self-esteem is at an all-time low. They think there's no way out. They think there's no hope. They wonder what am I going to do about finances? Where am I going to live? How am I going to support my children and get to work if I leave this situation? Warm Hearts certainly validated these women in such a powerful way."
As well as tangible items, Warm Hearts has contributed to another important piece of the solution to domestic violence, Tobin says: public awareness. Since last year's campaign, the shelter's statistics have been higher, with more women calling the crisis hotline and coming to the shelter. Tobin says this is because, women realized they have options. Though more women have been coming through the shelter's doors, the rate of recidivism has gone down, which means the programming is working to help women get out of abusive situations for good.
This year's Warm Hearts campaign started a few weeks ago with Every Penny Counts, a drive to collect pennies - which will no longer be used in Canada after Feb. 4 - for Iris Kirby House. It's been a success so far, with readers dropping their pennies off at The Telegram office in exchange for the chance to win prizes like an iPad. Tonight is Telegram corporate night at the MUN Seahawks basketball games at the Field House at Memorial University, and a collection area will be set up to take pennies. Throughout the coming weeks, penny cans will be placed in retail locations across St. John's to collect donations.
The Telegram is once again collecting the following items for the Warm Hearts campaign: pyjamas, blankets, underwear, socks, slippers, hats, scarves and mittens in various sizes for women and children (new items only, please) - all items Iris Kirby House can use to provide warmth to its residents this winter. The campaign is also collecting personal hygiene items needed by the shelter, such as shampoo, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste.
This year's Warm Hearts campaign will culminate in the second annual "Stars for Warm Hearts" show at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre Saturday, Feb. 23. The event will include Shanneyganock, Chris Kirby and the Marquee, John Sheehan, Evry7th, Jerry Stamp, Ian Foster, Mary Barry, The Neighbourhood Strays and additional exciting acts to be announced.
Boyd is the campaign patron again this year, and will host the show, as well as perform. She'll also appear at various public events throughout February as part of Warm Hearts.
"Last year's inaugural campaign did so much to shine light into the dark corners of domestic violence and to give hope to women who feel alone and trapped in abusive situations," she says. "I am so looking forward to contributing in any way I can to make this year's campaign even more successful. Kudos to Tara Bradbury and The Telegram for leading the way for women and children who live in fear of domestic violence every day. This campaign is working and I encourage all Newfoundlanders to contribute in any way they can. Chances are, someone you know is suffering in silence."
Those wishing to donate to the Warm Hearts campaign can drop their items and pennies off at The Telegram's office, upstairs in the Village Shopping Centre.
Read the series on local domestic violence that inspired the Warm Hearts campaign at http://bit.ly/wvteKE.