When Elfie Klassen first began working at Surrey Women’s Centre in the mid-2000s, it was still a grassroots operation.
“The flavour of coming out of the marches, Take Back the Night, women’s marches, this is how Surrey Women’s Centre started,” said Klassen, who works for the organization as an Aboriginal victim support worker. “It was grassroots for a long time, and then we outgrew the grassroots movement.”
Klassen said longtime former director Sonya Boyce had a vision for the Whalley-based society, helping it evolve from a grassroots society 25 years ago to today’s much-larger organization, which helps local women and children fleeing violence.
But one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the high number of Aboriginal women they serve.
“Even back in the day, when I was doing counselling here, I had 16 clients and 13 were Aboriginal,” noted Klassen. “And it wasn’t because I was Aboriginal that I got them, it was just the ratio. The ratio still remains quite high with Aboriginal folks here in Surrey.
“I feel it’s more than work. It’s what I’m meant to do in this life,” Klassen mused. “Some of these matters, I deal with a lot of really high-risk files. They could be dead, these women, very easily. And their children. I’m glad that Surrey Women’s Centre is present to help.”
It’s been a struggle to stay afloat at various points in the centre’s 25-year history.
But board president Carly Crawford said “it’s amazing what these incredible women can do on a shoestring budget.”
“Fundraising has changed and government has changed,” noted Crawford. “We had a lot of problems with previous governments cutting funding to women-serving organizations. You had to be creative. Even the fact that with the global financial crisis, people weren’t donating as much privately…. What these women have done on very little resources is incredible.
“One thing that is a source of pride for the organization is the change in fundraising, so going toward monthly donorship versus telecanvassing,” Crawford added. “So trying to reach people in more ways through technology…. That’s really made a big difference in the amount of money coming in, and the centre’s profile within Surrey.”
Allison Tanaka, office co-ordinator, said “some of the biggest shifts for the centre” came in 2012 and onward.
In the last several years, the centre has solidified partnerships with Fraser Health, Surrey RCMP and the Ministry of Child and Family Development (MCFD).
“The SMART program started in that time,” Tanaka explained. “That’s the Surrey Mobile Assault Response Team. That’s where we accompany women and children to the hospital after an assault for a specialized exam. That program was a huge endeavour because it was a partnership with Fraser Health. We serve the entire Fraser Health Authority, so that’s Burnaby to Boston Bar.”
It includes emotional support in hospital, and practical support after that, which could mean helping flee violence or navigating court systems.
This past January, the SMART program expanded to include a mobile outreach van that goes out between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., Friday to Tuesday nights, and it’s completely funded by private donors.
“It’s a program for women who are working the streets,” explained Tanaka. “They provide harm reduction kits, hygiene kits, they can also look for signs of trafficking and get women off the streets who are being trafficked…. If they choose to get out, we can help get them out of that lifestyle.”
Last month alone, the centre reached 700 women through its mobile van, which included sex workers as well as those struggling with drug addiction or homelessness.
The SMART outreach program also includes catching “Bad Date Reports,” where women can anonymously report sexual or physical assaults, which is handed out on the streets every night, telling other women who to watch for. The information is also distributed to the RCMP, for follow-up.
The last six years have also seen new partnerships with Surrey RCMP’s Domestic Violence and Special Victims Units.
“So we now have co-located workers who are actually working in the police detachments in those offices,” said Tanaka, “and are able to support the women from a community based perspective.”
Another huge step was having Surrey Women’s Centre workers in MCFD offices.
“Getting community-based workers into government or police offices can be challenging because often times feminists can be seen as these man-hating, ragers, screaming, we want to protest,” said Tanaka. “But I think that was Sonya’s vision, that’s not what we do. In order to really support a woman, in order to really go further in the community, we have to work together.”
Clientele has also grown significantly. Four years ago the centre served roughly 2,000 women a year, and last year, their client count jumped to 6,000.
“Having those partners in those different agencies, I think is what brought the numbers up,” mused Tanaka. “Now we’re able to reach more women.”
The centre has also been part of the Surrey Missing Women’s Network for years, and runs its Embrace Clinic, which involves nurse practitioners treating women for free, even if they don’t have identification.
A recent milestone was executive director Sonya Boyce leaving the centre after two decades, and Shahnaz Rahman taking the helm this past February.
“We brought in Shahnaz, so we now feel like we have this new vision and this new backing of our values, and a new set of eyes for all of us,” said Tanaka. “A new energy.”
So at the 25 year mark the centre has a new vision and new leadership. Top of mind for Rahman is adding legal aid and advocacy supports for Surrey Women Centre’s clients.
“If they don’t have the access to legal aid, a lot of these women are really at risk in family law cases,” said Rahman. “Losing custody of their children, any property rights if there is property in question, access to child support and spousal support…. Access to legal aid is really, really critical. It’s not always understood how women are disadvantaged in the family law system. We hear stories of women that have gone through trauma, apply for legal aid and is maybe earning a little too much, and now she has to represent herself. A lot of women end up giving up their jobs and fighting these court battles, having to face their abuser, just trying to keep their child.”
But first, Rahman is looking ahead to the 25th anniversary event for the centre, set for this weekend. She said it’s about “celebrating 25 years of resilience” and “surviving the cuts.”
“In 2002 when all women’s centres were wiped out, our survival was a miracle,” said Rahman.
“We’re really excited,” she said of the event. “It’s a celebration. It’s open to everyone. We’ll also be acknowledging and honouring some people in the past 25 years that have made significant contributions. And what we’re really excited about is four of our founding mothers of the Surrey Women’s Centre will be coming to the event.”
Keynote speaker at the event will be Kamal Dhillon, local author of Black and Blue Sari and international speaker on violence against women and girls.
The “Justice, Power and Freedom Celebration” is set for this Saturday, June 9 from noon to 3 p.m. at Holland Park (13428 Old Yale Rd.).