By Melodie McCullough
Do you know Lynn Zimmer?
Maybe you have met her through the Women’s Business Network of Peterborough, or perhaps through her volunteer work with the United Way of Peterborough and District, or the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough, or as chair of the local police board for four years.
Then again, maybe you are one of the thousands of women she has helped over the more than 40 years she has acted on behalf of women fleeing violence and abuse.
Zimmer, as a founding member of the first women’s shelter in Canada in Toronto in 1973, has led the way. She’s been executive director of the YWCA Peterborough Haliburton for 33 years now, and she isn’t ready to stop any time soon.
(Update: Lynn Zimmer recently announced she will retire in November, 2019.)
She oversees a staff of 76 at four locations: the administrative, counselling and advocacy site on Simcoe Street, the Crossroads Women’s Shelter, and a 40-unit housing complex for women who have escaped violence, all in Peterborough; and the HERS women’s shelter and counselling centre in Minden in Haliburton County.
The shelters are two of over 600 shelters in Canada, with over 12,000 beds serving around 60,000 women and children a year – providing emergency shelter, transition housing, and safe home networks in private homes in remote rural areas, funded by all levels of government, and recognised as a vital service to women everywhere.
But, of course, it wasn’t always that way.
In The Beginning
Born in Kitchener, a young Zimmer first arrived in Peterborough in 1969 for a job with the Peterborough Examiner as a reporter for the Women’s Page, as it was known. It was the “given in marriage by her father, the bride wore a formal gown of white silk lagoda with empire bodice of lace…” kind of reporting. Zimmer said it was during her two years there that she discovered feminism, and began reporting, instead, about community issues and organizations, and sharing profiles of local female leaders –-news that women would find interesting.
Following that, Zimmer went to law school for one year in Toronto, but it wasn’t for her. She started volunteering with a women’s organization called “Women’s Place” in Toronto. They were hearing about women in marriages, with children, who needed to get out, but had no money. They thought women were unhappy, their husbands were drinking too much, the love was gone and they couldn’t escape.
“We realised they needed a crisis stepping-off point,” said Zimmer.
They put up a sign on a bulletin board asking women to come forward who wanted to help get something started. It was the summer of 1972. Ten showed up. Interval House – a place for a peaceful interval – opened April 1, 1973.
“We created the first women’s shelter in Canada,” said Zimmer. “We didn’t really know that’s what we were doing. We actually didn’t understand that violence was going to be the precipitating factor, but from the very first woman who came in on the very first day that’s what was happening and that’s why they wanted to get out. We were completely shocked and unprepared for it.”
“But that was the beginning of that horrible secret starting to become public knowledge,” she said.
The Toronto newspapers of the day called the occupants “runaway wives” who “abandoned” their husbands. But those women were able to go on welfare and get a housing allowance using the shelter’s address, and, from this, they paid rent to Interval House, which was run by a collective.
“We were in survival mode,” said Zimmer, “often working for nothing. I was the only staff person who lasted beyond the first year, and I stayed for 12 years. It became my whole career.”
“We were finding our way, the first ones to recognise this need and explain it to other agencies and the police,” she continued. “It was a very new phenomenon in the Toronto social safety net.”
“But it paved the way, absolutely,” she said. “There was a spontaneous, arising recognition that this was something that was happening to women, and something could be done about it all across the country. We started to do that.”
In 1981, Zimmer moved to Peterborough with her husband, and began commuting to her job in Toronto. In 1983, Peterborough’s YWCA made the courageous decision to shift its focus to address women escaping violence. It sold its large downtown building, down-sized and opened two Crossroads women’s shelters, and a second-hand clothing store.
Within a few months, Zimmer was hired as executive director.
In the early days, the shelters were in old rented houses with women and children packed into its rooms with bunk beds. Being able to design, build and open the new Crossroads shelter in 2011 with the help of generous community donors was a remarkable feat. It is a safe healing space, said Zimmer, with 19 mostly-single bedrooms, a number of bathrooms, suites for families, bright sunlit hallways, lots of privacy and common space, and a huge kitchen and dining room which are “the heart of the shelter, where something good is always cooking”.
Counselling services are now a significant part of the YWCA’s mandate. (See START below.)
“A big part of our work is helping women to believe in themselves again,” Zimmer said. “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.”
“Over time they will recognise the abuse and that it’s not going to change. Ultimately, they’ll know, ‘I can’t change him’.”
Introducing rural programming and counselling in Peterborough and Haliburton Counties presented challenges for the YWCA, said Zimmer. A lot of issues for women, different from urban issues, exist, such as isolation, high levels of poverty, male access to hunting weapons, lack of day care, lack of confidentiality and anonymity, fewer resources and lack of public transportation. Last year, YWCA counsellors travelled to 582 counselling sessions in Haliburton County because, with the above situations, it is impossible for many women to get to a counselling centre.
In 1991Centennial Crescent opened. It’s a 40-unit housing complex in Peterborough for women who have escaped abuse, with rent geared to income.
Then came community development work and advocacy: working with women and families in low-income neighbourhoods, “and we found that food was the magic that would bring people together,” said Zimmer. Kitchens, gardens and food security became a focus.
“It’s very difficult to have enough food to eat in Peterborough because rents are very high and income is low. People have to make the choice of eating or paying the rent,” she said. “We need food with dignity.”
The YWCA Nourish Project offers food access programs like JustFood, which provides two healthy, affordable food boxes once a month to individuals in the city and county. The YWCA also has programs that teach cooking skills, how to grow one’s own food, and participate in community gardening.
There’s also a Peer Advocacy Training course that provides leadership opportunities for people experiencing poverty and marginalization. The training is designed to address the root causes of poverty and identify ways to engage and create change.
Has life for abused women improved since Interval House opened its doors in 1973?
Statistics from the Canadian Women’s Foundation show, on any given night, there are over 6,000 women and children sleeping in shelters in Canada because it’s not safe at home. Based on a one-day snapshot of shelter data, about 4,476 women and their 3,493 children use shelters across the country. However, according to a report by the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters & Transition Houses, there isn’t enough room for everyone who needs help and about 300 women and kids are turned away each night.
In Peterborough, YWCA counsellors answered 4,888 support and crisis calls in 2015 — a 58% increase over the year before. Every day last year, Peterborough police responded, on average, to three calls a day for domestic abuse.
“Most people are aware now of violence within intimate relationships, and know it is wrong,” said Zimmer. “Shelters are now widely available. The safety and community support is better. The police, social workers, hospitals, courts are aware of violence — but the flow of women needing help hasn’t stopped.”
And the internet, of course, has changed everything, she said.
“Abusive behaviour is also fueled by the internet porn industry in ways we haven’t even begun to comprehend,” Zimmer noted.
There is always more that can be done, said Zimmer. For one thing, family court needs to be more responsive to the issues of women and violence.
“It’s completely clogged up,” she said. “The whole system is designed for people with lawyers and most women don’t have lawyers, and it goes from there.”
And for many women, there is still a gap between “surviving and thriving”, she said.
“Women still live in poverty. They doubt their ability to get the education they need, or to work or apply for a job. So many met their boyfriends when they were 16 and didn’t finish high school.”
“We are finding ways to create the programs and steps for them to get help. Re-planning their whole lives can make a huge, huge difference so they aren’t stuck in poverty, thinking they can’t achieve what their young dreams might have been.”
And After All …
Lynn Zimmer knows she has made a difference in the lives of women, and still is.
“I work with people every day who are so connected by a shared vision of the world we want for women and girls. Our work directly contributes to that vision. It’s really pretty exciting,” she said.
“While my work with women can be tragic and filled with anger, the other part is you see the incredible unleashing of women’s spirits and energy when the abuse is gone.”
Lynn Zimmer is Red Pashmina Inc. Woman of Impact
YWCA Peterborough Haliburton START Program: Support Team for Abuse Response Today; Call 705-743-3526 (or drop-in Mondays, 9:30 am – 3:00 pm); 216 Simcoe St., Peterborough — providing coordinated access to free, confidential services for women experiencing violence and abuse.