Nathalie Desjarlais has gone from discovering YWCA programs and putting her addictions behind her, to serving as a role model for women accessing YWCA services today. In the process she likely saved her life.
Part of the inspiration for YWCA Regina’s new $45 million Centre for Women and Families opening in 2022 in Regina are six simple leather chairs in the organization’s current lobby. They are always occupied because they offer safe refuge for anyone who needs it. No one is ever asked to leave. Meet four U of R graduates who are leading YWCA Regina into a new era.
Like many people, Nathalie Desjarlais had always thought of the YWCA as a place with a gym and a pool. She had no idea of women and families, until she, herself, had nowhere else to turn. “I came here straight from detox. My counsellor made a phone call and the YWCA had a room. I was nervous at first when I got here, about living among a bunch of other women,” she says.
She volunteered at the clothing store, cleaned common areas, participated in communal cooking, and took various classes. “It helped me feel proud, like you’re actually somebody now and not just someone who is hiding in a room.”
It wasn’t long before the residence began to feel like home. “I loved it. I had a key to my own room. I didn’t care if that room was small. I had my own bed. When you don’t have anywhere to go, these things are important.” Desjarlais says living at the Regina YWCA for four years helped her stay sober. “It helped me find myself again. I don’t need to be drunk or high to enjoy my day.”
Integrating herself into the community there was key. She volunteered at the clothing store, cleaned common areas, participated in communal cooking, and took various classes. “It helped me feel proud, like you’re actually somebody now and not just someone who is hiding in a room.”
She also became a mentor to other women who were struggling with addictions. “Once you talk about it more and talk with other women, you can relate to them. You share each other’s stories and it takes it off your shoulders after so many years of keeping it inside,” she says.
Desjarlais has since moved into her own place, which she shares with her adult daughter. She continues to spend time at the YWCA, serving as a role model for other women accessing its services. “Now, I’m actually looking after me. It took a long time. If it wasn’t for this place, I don’t know where I’d be right now. I’m so grateful and thankful that I got to stay here.”
“Last year, we turned away 3,000 women and children from our shelters due to lack of capacity,” says Melissa Coomber-Bendtsen BEd’02, YWCA Regina chief executive officer."
The YWCA is a lifeline for many, currently helping more than 7,000 women and families each year with services that address family homelessness, gender-based violence, housing support, wellness and childcare. It has grown to the point where its current facility, located in downtown Regina, can no longer meet the needs of its staff and clients. “Last year, we turned away 3,000 women and children from our shelters due to lack of capacity,” says Melissa Coomber-Bendtsen BEd’02, YWCA Regina chief executive officer.
The YWCA has also had to make do with less-than-ideal spaces for its programming. For example, the daycare is in a former cafeteria, and the children’s craft room is in an old gym change room in the basement. Meeting rooms are often not only double-booked, but also quadruple-booked, with internal and external groups jockeying for spots.
The solution? The new YWCA Regina Centre for Women and Families, a $45 million facility to be located in Regina’s Cathedral neighbourhood, at the site of the former Victoria School and Lucy Eley Park. In addition to the YWCA, the centre will serve as a hub for community services, housing Regina Mobile Crisis Services, All Nations Hope Network, Regina Sexual Assault Centre, a commercial kitchen, traditional Indigenous healing and medicine spaces, and various pop-up services, such as immunization clinics and grocery stores. It will also have a café, two childcare centres, a used clothing store, multipurpose spaces that can be rented by the public, and additional housing units.
The premise for the new centre was inspired by six simple leather chairs in the lobby of the current building. “Those chairs are always full of people who live here and people who are coming off the street and just need a safe place to rest. If people are coming in, whether they’ve been drinking all night, are on drugs or escaping an abusive partner, they’re comfortable walking into our space and know they won’t be asked to leave,” says Coomber-Bendtsen. As she watched people in the chairs, she started wondering, “What if we had services for them while they’re here? What does that look like? How can we prevent people from going into total crisis? That’s how the concept of the Centre for Women and Families started: How many more leather chairs do we need? If we had all the space in the world, what could we do?”
The centre will allow the YWCA to fulfil its goal of providing trauma-informed care (practices that promote a culture of safety, empowerment, and healing) for the people it serves. This means every woman, child, and family member who comes into the space is treated based on their specific traumas and experiences. The staff at the reception desk assess the immediate needs of people walking in — do they need food, water, a private space to “chill out”? — as well as whether they need to access longer-term services.
All Nations Hope Network is looking forward to moving into the centre once it opens in 2022. Grounded in Indigenous spirituality and cultural practices, the network serves people who are dealing with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, and who may also be struggling with addictions, homelessness, and poverty. As with the YWCA’s current location, the facilities for All Nations Hope Network are far from ideal. Its administrative offices are located in Fort Qu’Appelle, its outreach programs are run out of a building in North Central Regina, with a ceremonial site and sweat lodge located several blocks away, and traditional medicines are processed and stored in CEO Margaret Kisikaw Piyesis’ garage.
“We need a sacred space where we can process and harvest our medicines and take care of them in a good way. We need a space where we can hold our ceremonies indoors and outdoors. We need a place that is more accessible. We need more staff to be navigating in the community, working with people who walk through our doors,” says Kisikaw Piyesis.
All Nations Hope Network will be moving its sacred site into the Centre for Women and Families, creating the city’s first indoor sweat lodge, where people can participate in ceremonies regardless of the season. Kisikaw Piyesis, a traditional medicine practitioner, stresses the importance of ceremony for Indigenous people. “At All Nations Hope Network, we are smudging and praying every day for the people. We are pleading consistently for the health and wellness of our families and children. We believe Indigenous people have solutions for what we face as we move through this place. We need to understand where we’re at and how we can bring solutions to life. We do all these things through ceremony.”
Coomber-Bendtsen believes that giving the sweat lodge a prominent place in the city is part of a process of reconciliation for the YWCA, a colonial institution that has been around for more than 150 years. “We recognized that it’s our duty to ensure this space is there and is protected as a healing lodge and sacred space past our time. It’s about giving that land back,” she says.
Kisikaw Piyesis appreciates the partnership with the YWCA. She says, “People are not coming in to save us or control us. They can sit beside us as allies.”
Although it’s only two blocks from the current YWCA, the change of location brings the Centre for Women and Families away from the downtown core and brings it into a residential neighbourhood. “That’s very deliberate,” Coomber-Bendtsen says. “Part of creating a sense of something greater than the crisis you’re involved in is about being authentically in a community. It’s about saying, ‘Everyone deserves to be part of a neighbourhood.’ ”
She notes that the facility will benefit people living in the community as well. “We’ve become isolated as community members in how we navigate neighbours and neighbourhoods. A healthy, vibrant community needs to have opportunities to give back and opportunities to participate, not just at Christmas, but on an ongoing basis, to exist outside of their fences and their worldviews.” She adds that reducing homelessness and instances where people have no place to go also reduces crime and creates a more vibrant neighbourhood. “The intent is to bring something rather than to take something away. The empty field is being taken away, but our intentions are to bring something even better.”
The YWCA is consulting with members of the neighbourhood on features of the centre that can serve them, such as the playground and park that will be located on site.
Creating the Centre for Women and Families is no small undertaking, but fortunately Coomber-Bendtsen has a strong team behind her: Tara Molson CCE’09 is the senior director of community programs; Alexis Losie BA’09 is the senior director of operations; and Lindsay Dell BAdmin’02 is the senior director of finance. Each of them is looking forward to the new centre for different reasons.
Molson, who is also responsible for childcare programs, says, “It will have a great impact on our childcare and families coming in. It’s going to open up space for them to stay a bit longer. Right now, people come drop off kids and leave right away. Having a café, more open space, more reason for them to stick around in the building will be positive.”
She is also excited about having a multipurpose space for kids’ activities that isn’t in an old shower. “Having the space to have proper teaching moments is hard to do in a basement with tons of different community groups coming in and out. Having moments with kids to help them heal and move forward in their lives will be a lot easier in a space like the hub.”
Losie is looking forward to seeing how a properly designed building can contribute to the well-being of the neighbourhood. “Six chairs have created a community in this lobby, such a strong community that I can’t wait to see what a building that is purpose-built can do for people we serve.” She is eager for a loading dock and storage areas to be able to accept larger donations from the public. Her vision for the building is to have “spaces to store things, spaces for people to volunteer on a regular basis, and a community that’s so magnetic and appealing that we have more volunteers than we know what to do with.”
Dell is the most recent member of the team, having only been on the job for a few months. She mentions that the new building will bring in diversified revenue for the organization, through leases from community partners and fee-for-service programming, which means the YWCA will be less reliant on government funding. “The sustainability is really what we want. It’s an exciting project to be a part of. I’m still on the high of being in a new job. For me, it was about coming to an organization that’s very empowering for women,” says Dell.
Molson, Losie, Dell and Coomber-Bendtsen are all University of Regina graduates. Each feel that their time at the U of R helped prepare them for their current roles and reflects the work they’re doing at the YWCA.
“The only other building I can think of to have residences and offices — people living there, working there, food services, renting places for special events — is the University of Regina. Not a lot of places offer those services on one property,” says Losie.
She sees the sense of community at the YWCA and the University in the same way. “If you were someone at University who went to classes and left campus, you had a different experience than people who immersed themselves in the culture and gave back. That’s how I met people — by getting involved in events going on there. You see that with the women here — there are new-found friendships because they took a sewing class together or took part in some of our events here. Those are bonds that I can liken to student groups. That’s where you develop social circles.”
Coomber-Bendtsen agrees and says that the U of R helps to build both individuals and communities by encouraging students to go beyond their comfort zones. “There’s a vulnerability to the age I was when I went to university. There’s a risk — you’re always asked to put yourself in situations that felt uncomfortable. That’s where my greatest amount of growth came from, when I reflect back. Every time I did that, there was success inherent in that. That’s reflective in tackling something like this. I learned through my University of Regina experiences that great things happen when you put yourself in uncomfortable situations, where you’re asked to learn something completely different than your skill set. You learn that taking that risk is important.”
Photos by Trevor Hopkin