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Morinville safe house faces funding challenges due to COVID-19

The Jessica Martel Memorial Foundation is holding an online auction Nov. 15 to 24 in a bid to make up the shortfall.

COVID-19 has created major challenges for a team of big hearts battling the epidemic of domestic violence.

"The need and the demand are going to increase during a pandemic," said Teena Hughson, community engagement coordinator for the foundation that runs Jessie's House in Morinville. "This is why we need the funding."

Jessica Martel, 26, was murdered in front of her three children inside their Morinville home by her common-law husband on April 29, 2009.

Named in memory of Martel, Jessie's House opened its doors on May 19, 2020, under COVID-19 protocols.

"We need to impress (upon) people the need for these shelters. It is a life-and-death situation," said Hughson, "Jessica had been turned away from shelters before she was murdered."

The spring opening of Jessie's House was the culmination of eight years of fundraising and determination spearheaded by Jessica's mother, Lynne Rosychuk. In 2012, she created the Jessica Martel Memorial Foundation (JMMF) with the goal of building a safe house for all victims of domestic violence. The 9,200-square-foot home, on land donated by the Town of Morinville, is the first of its kind to be built in Alberta in 22 years and cost around $1.6 million.

And while Jessie's House fills a small void to combat family violence, Hughson said the need is always urgent.

"Like so many organizations, we are affected by the challenge due to COVID. It doesn't take away from the fact that the severity and the number of domestic violence incidents has increased during the lockdown. People in domestic violence situations are isolated and not able to reach out."

She said recent data from the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters (ACWS) shows 16,722 people were turned away from shelters in Alberta in 2018 and 23,247 were turned away in 2019.

Jan Reimer, ACWS executive director, said all signs point to an increase in family violence during COVID-19.

"We can see the potential for abusers to use the virus to further isolate women," said Reimer. She said numbers were trending upward even before the pandemic, and were exacerbated during the COVID-19 lockdown.

"In the spring, there was a drop in shelter admissions due to the fear of COVID, but now those numbers are moving back up."

Hughson said the pandemic has created unique challenges for the JMMF team.

To comply with COVID-19 regulations, capacity for the 35-bed facility has been held at 17. All 25 staff, which includes Rosychuk as full-time chef, follow strict protocols to ensure the safety of everyone staying at the home.

An even bigger obstacle for the JMMF team has been on the fundraising side.

Two major events – a Break Free gala in the spring and a Country Cabaret in the fall – were cancelled due to COVID-19. The foundation's annual charity run, which raised $48,000 in 2019, became a virtual event in 2020 and raised $16,000.

Due to the funding difficulties, the foundation is holding an online auction in a bid to make up the shortfall.

"We pivoted to a virtual event so we will have an online auction," said Hughson, adding the foundation has already received donations including a large quilt, gift baskets and tickets for a paintball session.

The auction will run from Nov. 15 to 24. The deadline to submit auction items is Nov. 1.

Hughson said the need is urgent.

"We need to raise an estimated $1.4 million each year to continue operating Jessie’s House."

Hughson said Morinville, Sturgeon County and the surrounding areas have been very supportive of Jessie’s House in the past and she is confident that trend will continue.

"Jessica was well-loved in our community," she said. "Not a day goes by where I don't hear someone saying how well-loved she was."

People in need of support can call the Jessie’s House Crisis Line 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-866-939-2850.

Gary Poignant is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Great West Newspapers. This story was funded by the Facebook Journalism Project Supporting Local News Coverage of COVID-19 Program via the Local Media Foundation.

Gary Poignant

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