The first time Jessica Martel tried to leave her partner, he hit her. The last time she tried to leave, he killed her.
Eleven years after the 26-year-old’s death, Ms. Martel’s mother, Lynne Rosychuk, has fulfilled her dream of opening a women’s shelter in her memory.
Jessie’s House is set to open – albeit at a reduced capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic – on Tuesday in Morinville, Alta. It’s the province’s first new emergency women’s shelter in more than 20 years.
“It’s a profound story of the resilience people can have,” Teena Hughson, community engagement co-ordinator for the Jessica Martel Memorial Foundation, said of Ms. Rosychuk last week, as finishing touches were put on the 9,200 square-foot facility. The shelter will offer 35 beds, and services that include a 24-hour crisis line and mobile outreach, a crucial support for a rural stretch of the province that has long been under-resourced in protecting families from violence.
At least 10 women and girls have died in intimate-partner homicides across Canada since April 1; four of them in Alberta.
The countrywide lockdown required to fight the spread of COVID-19 has confined families in their homes and amplified domestic violence. Even before this viral pandemic began, experts in the sector had been sounding the alarm about the crisis of intimate partner violence. With access to many community supports and social services now cut off, they say addressing it has become more urgent.
In the decade before her death, Ms. Martel’s relationship with her partner had been marred by emotional, verbal and physical violence. But while she and her family had sought help several times, little was on offer. When they contacted safe houses, they were told the wait would be six to eight weeks. They made phone calls and researched safety planning, but felt like they were constantly hitting roadblocks.
On April 29, 2009, Ms. Martel and her mother hatched a plan to get her away for good. Ms. Rosychuk would pick her and the kids up later that night at their Morinville home in the guise of having them over for a visit. But when Ms. Rosychuk called to check in on her daughter that afternoon and she didn’t answer, her stomach sank. Ms. Rosychuk called her husband, who told her to get to Jessica’s right away. She raced over to find the street lined with first responders. Her partner had realized she was leaving, and had beaten and strangled her. Their three kids were in the house. (James Urbaniak pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in October, 2010.)
For a long time, Ms. Rosychuk was just angry.
“When we first decided to start this project, our whole family ... we were pretty broken. And angry,” she said. “There were other women we’d hear about on the news that horrible things were happening to. Just all of the injustices we were seeing, we needed to do something different.”
Before Jessie’s House, the closest emergency shelters were in Edmonton, Camrose or Hinton, 40 minutes to three hours away. But, like many shelters, they are almost always full.
Today, the turn-away rate at emergency shelters in Alberta (and across Canada) is about 70 per cent, Ms. Hughson said.
The Jessica Martel Memorial Foundation was officially launched in 2012. The project was built around Ms. Rosychuk’s kitchen table with local women who’d heard about her vision to open a shelter and showed up at her door wanting to help.
The process was volunteer-led, Ms. Rosychuk said, with small grassroots fundraisers. Local organizations and businesses then began holding larger events, and private donations trickled in.
Eventually, the Morinville township donated the land and servicing for the house, and granted the foundation tax-free status. The province has provided grant funding to get started. Once the shelter opens, the foundation hopes to secure operational funding from the province, and some of the federal government’s emergency COVID-19 money for shelters and sexual assault centres.
For Ms. Rosychuk, the final week was exhausting, logistically and emotionally. But she is proud to have realized her dream.
“My husband and all my children and my grandchildren have had a huge part in this house. They have chosen things that have been placed in this house. They worked hard alongside me, and it has been a healing journey,” Ms. Rosychuk said – particularly for her three grandchildren, who she and her husband are raising. “It’s helped them see the good in people,” she said.
Ms. Rosychuk has been touched by the support, even from strangers; mementos of which are scattered throughout the home.
A family whose teenage son died donated all of his hockey equipment and electronics, she said.
“They saw what we were doing and believed in our vision and wanted to help teens. So all his stuff is sitting in our beautiful teen’s retreat area that we have.”
A woman whose daughter died by suicide after enduring intimate-partner violence, said nightlights were the only thing that had made her daughter feel safe at night.
“So she donated all the nightlights in our house to make other families feel safe,” Ms. Rosychuk said. “When I think about it, it makes me cry to think that they loved my daughter just as much.”
Last week, on the eve of the opening, a woman in town gave Ms. Rosychuk a painted portrait of her daughter. The woman had never met Jessica, but had heard her story and was inspired by Ms. Rosychuk’s work. The portrait will hang in the house – one of the final touches before it opens on Tuesday.
“This house is going to do some amazing things,” Ms. Rosychuk said. “I can’t wait.”
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