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Community involvement

Two organizations committed to helping women

December 3, 2021

The holidays are about giving and being there for each other. With so many cases of domestic violence this year, we want to highlight what Shelter Movers and Vide ta sacoche are doing to make a difference in the lives of women in need. A conversation with the heads of 2 organizations supported by Desjardins through the GoodSpark Fund.

Violence against women has become worse since the pandemic started. Sadly, Renata Militzer, who heads up Shelter Movers for the Montreal region, is all too familiar with this heartbreaking situation. Shelter Movers, which is active in 6 Canadian cities, offers free moving and storage services to women leaving abusive relationships.

"These women are referred to us by shelters and healthcare workers. Our volunteer movers help women and gender diverse persons, and their children, escape domestic violence without having to leave everything behind. Over the last 18 months or so, gender-based violence has become more prevalent worldwide. And lifting the lockdowns hasn't made much of a difference. The UN calls this alarming phenomenon a 'shadow pandemic'," explains Militzer.

Founded in 2016, Shelter Movers is the only organization to offer this type of service. Since the start of the pandemic, the number of moves has gone up by 66% across Canada. "While most of our clients are women, we're here for anyone experiencing domestic violence. Gender-based violence can also happen in LGBTQ+ relationships, and this community is often left out of the conversation," adds Militzer. The Montreal location, which opened its doors in September 2020, does an average of 12 moves per month.

Empowering survivors

Shelter Movers makes sure that victims of domestic violence, whom they prefer to refer to as survivors, are the ones in charge of the move. "When someone is in an abusive relationship, they lose control over many aspects of their life. That's why it's important to let them make the decisions as they start to build their new life," says Militzer.

A team of Shelter Movers volunteers gets ready to help a survivor move.

Shelter Movers makes it possible for clients to move without having to worry about costs. "We do our best to remove any obstacles that may make it harder for someone to leave a toxic environment," adds Militzer. "Not only does it cost a lot to replace all their furniture and belongings, but there's also an emotional toll, especially on children, who may not be able to bring all their favourite toys with them. Our teams are often accompanied by security guards or police officers, so clients can go get their belongings safely. Domestic violence tends to become worse (up to and including feminicide) when a women decides to leave her abuser. That's why it's very important to keep everyone safe."

Comfort in the midst of chaos

Vide ta sacoche's mission is to bring a little comfort to vulnerable people by donating a bag of essentials, including soap, toothpaste and a few little extras, like moisturizer and makeup.

"It takes courage to leave an abusive relationship. When women arrive at the shelter, we give them a gift bag to let them know we're here for them and that it's okay to take care of themselves," explains Marie-Anik Shoiry, the organization's founder and CEO.

Marie-Anik Shoiry, founder and CEO of Vide ta Sacoche
Credit - Audet photo

Founded in 2018, Vide ta sacoche became an incorporated non-profit in early 2020. Focused on circular economy, the organization reaches out to manufacturers and distributers for donations of their surplus inventory. "We only accept unused products that would otherwise be thrown out or sit around a warehouse," mentions Shoiry. "We also collect donated hygiene products from the general public, along with cash donations that we use to buy items to round out the gift bags."

Demand and operating costs on the rise

Not only has the pandemic made it more challenging to hand out the gift bags in shelters, but there are now more needs to be met because of it. "When the pandemic first started, there was more demand for hand cream to help with dry hands from all the hand sanitizer being used. So we asked the public for help. We left a bin outside our office so people could make contactless donations."

Because of higher truck rental and storage fees, the cost of a move for Shelter Movers has gone up from $200 to nearly $300. The organization relies on cash donations from individuals and businesses, and other donations in kind, like truck rentals, storage spaces and security services.

Aiming higher

Both of these organizations are committed to finding ways to do even more for victims of domestic violence. With help from Desjardins, Vide ta sacoche will soon be buying a vehicle. "We'll be able to stock our new mobile unit with a selection of items for women to choose from based on their tastes and needs," explains Shoiry. "Down the road, we're also planning to offer services like manicures and makeovers so we can continue to make a difference in the lives of these women."

Marie-Anik Shoiry and the Vide ta sacoche board of directors.

The CEO also wants to broaden the organization's reach. In addition to the Quebec City area, Vide ta sacoche provides services in the Chaudières-Appalaches, Mauricie and Montérégie regions, and in Greater Montreal. "We want to offer our services provincewide," says Shoiry. "But, we need more resources to do that. Right now, we have one part-time employee and dozens of volunteers." The organization's annual donation campaign is currently underway. The goal is to deliver 1,000 holiday gift bags.

Shelter Movers also wants to expand beyond Greater Montreal, to help more people move. "Right now, clients have to wait 6 to 8 weeks for our services," explains Militzer. "If it's an emergency, we can help sooner. But we want to reduce the wait time for all our clients and be able to help more people. We know that we're only addressing a very small portion of actual needs in Quebec."

Forging ahead

In spite of the overwhelming need, the heads of these 2 organizations remain committed to helping women leave abusive relationships. "I like to think that each time we help a woman and her children move, we're helping a family build a better life," says Militzer. "Every person we help is a win."

These women's stories are what fuels Shoiry to do more. "I was really touched when we gave one woman her gift bag. She started crying because it was the first present she'd ever received. Knowing that we can make a difference in the brave journey these women are embarking on to retake control of their lives is all the thanks we need."

What would you like to see happen in 2022?

"I'd like people to keep talking about gender-based violence. We've been hearing more about it since the pandemic started, but we need to keep the conversation going. I'd also like people to feel motivated and inspired to do their part. Many of our volunteers are men, and they're part of the solution to this complex problem," says Militzer.

"We need more resources, for both women and the men that abuse them. Education is key. Young people need to know what's acceptable and what isn't when you're in a relationship. And we all need to learn how to tell when someone's being abused, and be prepared to step in before something really bad happens, either at home or at work1," adds Shoiry.


1Desjardins has recently teamed up with a group of women's shelters (Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale). Our goal is to become the first employer in Quebec to be recognized as an ally in the fight against domestic violence.