In 1992, The St Vincent de Paul Society and a group of other concerned community members identified the need for support for abused women in the Bowmanville area. With initial financial support from the St. Vincent de Paul Society and donations from the community, a house on Liberty Street was purchased and furnished. In 1995 that shelter opened its doors to victims of domestic violence.
At the time there was no stable funding for the program. It relied entirely on the goodwill of, and donations from, the community, with some support from the Region of Durham and the United Way. It was a rocky beginning, often with little money in the account to cover even basics such as food for the residents or staff salaries. Volunteers set up a small shop to take in used clothing a sell it to raise money to support the cost of services. This small shop was called “Second Chance”.
It was soon identified that the shelter’s 15 beds were not going to be able to meet the need in the community for supports to women and their children dealing with domestic abuse. Regardless of the tight financial situation, Bethesda House expanded its services to meet the needs of women living in the community in addition to women living in the shelter. Bethesda House became more than just a “house”, more than just the shelter, and was now a multi-service agency providing Outreach Services as well.
In 2001, the Board of Directors successfully negotiated an annualized funding arrangement with the Provincial Ministry of Community&Social Services. MCSS agreed to provide most of the funds required to cover the basic operating costs of the program. Bethesda House was, and is, still required to rely on the generosity and goodwill of the community to cover the remaining but it’s a long way from the rocky beginnings!
The original shelter on Liberty Street was closed a number of times due to health concerns related to the condition of the building. Finally, mould in the basement closed it down for good. At this point Bethesda House had no shelter beds to offer but continued to provide Outreach Services out of the Wilmagale Resource Centre.
With financial assistance from both the Federal and Provincial governments and Canada Mortgage and Housing, the Bethesda House Board of Directors purchased a wonderful old home in Bowmanville in 2002. The building was renovated to maintain as much of the warmth of the original old house as possible. The result was a warm and welcoming new 15 bed shelter, opened in July, 2003. The new shelter was large and bright, totally wheel-chair accessible, and had enhanced security to increase the safety of the women and children receiving services. Also new in 2003 was the acquisition of Outreach office over the Second Chance store where counsellors could meet with community clients.
By 2007 it was clear that the existing facilities were not sufficient to efficiently and effectively meet the needs of the growing number of clients requesting Bethesda House support. Bethesda House decided to use donations (including 2 very significant bequests made to the agency in the wills of Ms. M. Sturch and Ms. I. Rinch) for a down payment to purchase a larger space to house the Second Chance store and Outreach offices. A beautiful, historic building in the heart of downtown Bowmanville was purchased and many hours of volunteer service went into renovating it to meet service needs. Revenue from the increasingly successful Second Chance store and the funds previously used to rent space were used to cover the ongoing mortgage cost. The new facility’s grand opening was held in October 2007. Six months later, in April 2008, the building was totally destroyed in a fire that devastated 3 neighbouring buildings as well as ours. Outreach staff relocated to the shelter and continued to provide Outreach support from those cramped quarters. A rented space was arranged for the Second Chance store. Business continued on in spite of the loss.
However, holding tight to the old adage that “every cloud has a silver lining”, Bethesda House immediately proceeded to move forward to replace the lost building with one that could meet agency needs even more so than the old building could. Starting fresh, the front of the new building could now be made wheel-chair accessible, something that had not been able to be achieved with the previous 125 year old building. A Trillium Foundation grant was received to install an elevator in the new building allowing clients, volunteers and staff access to all 3 floors.The newly renovated building held it’s”Grand Opening” in October, 2009.
In 2008 the Ministry of Community & Social Services increased the number of funded beds in the shelter from 15 to 18. This increase in beds means that more women in the community who request support will be able to be accommodated.
Bethesda House prides itself in trying to reduce barriers to women accessing our services. One widely known barrier to women leaving abuse has always been the inability to bring their pets to safety with them. In 2015 Bethesda House became the first VAW shelter in the province of Ontario to officially become “pet-friendly”, enabling women to bring their pets with them into shelter.
The Bethesda House logo is the result of a region-wide contest to develop a symbol epitomizing the caring nature of the community which surrounds and protects those in need of shelter and support. Though there have been trials and tribulations along the way, Bethesda House has strived to continue to meet the needs of the increasing number of women, youth and children dealing with domestic abuse and relationship violence in Durham Region. In partnership with the caring community of Durham we plan to do so for as long as we are needed.