History

The History of Odyssey House

The Short Version

As recently as the late 1970’s, the Government of Alberta offered no official financial support to women’s shelters. Women who had experienced abuse in their lives within the Peace Country had limited options – their needs often unmet and unnoticed.

One day, someone did notice. That person was Elmer Borstad, Grande Prairie’s then MLA. What he saw compelled him into action. His immediate response was to push for the creation of a local shelter, as well as for a provincial funding policy. Through dogged determination, he was successful on both fronts.

The immediate result in Grande Prairie was Croken House, a trial project begun during the summer of 1980. It started with ten beds and was originally run by students working on government grants. It was a huge step in the right direction, though not nearly enough to deal with the full problem. A larger building was needed, along with a broader range of services.

A little over a year later, a new facility was opened. It was given a new name – Odyssey House – which spoke to the journey faced by those breaking free from cycles of violence. In 2016, Odyssey House opened up a second-stage shelter. Thanks to Elmer’s efforts and the contributions of countless volunteers, Odyssey House now consists of a 42-bed emergency shelter, and a 14 apartment unit supportive housing building, Serenity Place. Both the emergency shelter and second-stage shelter offer a significant number of additional support services including outreach services, childcare support, and public education, ensuring that victims of abuse have the necessary tools to complete their healing journeys.

We can protect our sisters and sons and daughters. We can help people escape cycles of violence. We can rescue, educate, and empower.

But we can only do so together. Please help.

The Full Story

The Grande Prairie Women’s Residence Association was formed in September of 1979 in response to a clear need for short-term accommodation for women experiencing intimate partner violence. It was the height of the boom years. Housing was at a premium and there were a lot of women with no place to stay. The MLA for Grande Prairie at the time, Elmer Borstad, along with a group of interested people from the community, began to document the need for a women’s shelter in Grande Prairie. Their first meeting was held at the home of Mrs. Margaret Bowes.

The Association incorporated as a non-profit society and worked from September 1979 to May 1980 on three founding projects: a needs assessment, a budget proposal, and an operating plan. It was a success. The Federal Government approved a summer student works grant of $11,900 to meet the cost of operating a residence for the summer months, providing that a building could be found.

A vacant, centrally located, older home was found, and a month-to-month lease was negotiated for its use; it was called Croken House after the original owner. Health, Fire, and Municipal Planning Commission requirements were met after some renovations were made. With a $3,000 emergency grant from the United Way to cover rent and utilities for the summer, Croken House opened on June 9, 1980 with ten beds and four staff members.

The residence received tremendous community support. Donations of beds, bedding, appliances, and furniture came pouring in. Croken House lacked funding and licensing for full food services or laundry facilities. Wapiti Lodge, the men’s hostel, allowed Croken House residents to eat lunches and dinners there as well as do house laundry.

Nearly 100 people attended our official opening ceremony on June 25, 1980. An additional grant was approved by the Federal Government enabling a staff increase to five. In late June of 1980, the province announced approval of an $18,000 one-time grant to the Association. This allowed the residence to continue operating at the end of the summer student project. A permanent supervisor was hired in place of the summer student staff. The search for long-term funding continued. The Province had a policy for ongoing funding for the men’s shelters at the time, but had no equivalent policy for women. Elmer Borstad got a committee of his fellow MLAs to recommend just such a policy.

Expansion

Croken House stayed open through the winter on private donations and another one-time grant from the province for $19,000. By January of 1981, only eight months after opening, it became apparent that a ten-bed shelter was not large enough. Full meal service was needed, as well as a play area for the children, and more office space for the staff. Not only was a larger facility needed, but the services needed to be adjusted to provide the necessary support to the many women who were coming to the shelter.

A building committee was formed to look for a larger facility. An application to purchase a new facility was presented to the Clifford E. Lee Foundation in March of 1981. The application was approved, with the Foundation agreeing to make the down payment on a long-term residence. The Association carried the mortgage until August 1983, at which time the Foundation agreed to pay off the balance owing on the house.

Meanwhile, in-service training for staff and volunteers was initiated, as was a modest public speaking program to increase community awareness of Croken House’s services.  In April 1981, the long-awaited government policy was announced to provide support for operating costs of women’s shelters. Association representatives attended province-wide meetings to help develop detailed policy guidelines, and were among the founding members of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS).

The new facility opened in September 1981 and was able to offer full meal services as well as secure doors, suitable office space, private counselling areas, and ample play areas both indoors and out. The service of an itinerant teacher was arranged for the children. Along with the new building came a new name — Odyssey House — to signify the beginning of an epic journey.

Odyssey House

In October 1981, an application was submitted to the Secretary of State for funds to set up a resource centre and to train volunteers to speak on family violence to the public at large. One staff member was designated Public Education Coordinator. With the expiration of the existing grant, the Family and Community Support Services funded a half-time public education position. In the winter of 1981/1982, a full-fledged Childcare Program was initiated. A full-time Childcare Coordinator was hired to work with the children in the shelter, and with the mothers. The philosophy of the program was to strive to meet the total needs of children in transition.

In 1984, Odyssey House spearheaded (and remains a part of) the Regional Steering Committee to Address Family Violence, whose mandate is to coordinate services for women and children who are victims of family violence in the Northwest region of Alberta. This region covers approximately one third of the province and has only one residence. The committee recommended to the government a summary of the services required to address the issues of family violence within the region.

In April 1984, Odyssey House initiated an Interagency Committee to address Family Violence whose mandate was to set up a treatment program for abusive men. It took almost two years, but the program launched successfully in February of 1986.  In January of 1985, the first support and therapy group for battered woman started. A therapist was hired to facilitate the group, and house staff acted as co-therapists. Early in 1985, Federal funding was received to run a one-year project to provide follow-up services to battered women and their children after leaving Odyssey House. This program was designed to provide friendship and emotional support to those families as the women made the transition to independent living.

To further meet the needs of women experience intimate partner violence, in November 1985 Odyssey House initiated “outreach support groups”.  The information presented afforded the women an opportunity to examine many aspects of violence in order to better understand their situation and to gain empowerment to make decisions for change. These groups are still conducted in the house, and are open to residents and non-residents alike. Expansion to a new facility began in December of 1985 and provided the house with a much needed addition to the indoor play area, as well as more office and resource centre space.

In March 1988, the Public Education Program expanded to include a full-time coordinator.  This has allowed the program to extend information on family violence and dating violence to grades nine and 11 students in both the City and County of Grande Prairie. The Childcare Program was further enhanced when, in November of 1988, parenting groups were offered to past and present residents for one morning a week. The sessions presently use a model called “Nobody’s Perfect”, which was developed by Health & Welfare Canada, and is designed specifically for young, single parents with low incomes.

Beyond Sheltering

Second-stage apartments were offered for women and children for six years, thanks to a partnership with both the Grande Spirit Foundation and Native Counselling Services of Alberta. The seven-unit apartment building offered ongoing support to those who had left our shelter. This partnership ended in December 2007 and is sadly missed.

As the original Odyssey House was eventually outgrown, a move was made into a new building in March of 2006. The new space accommodated 30 beds, as opposed to 24 in the older building. In 2008, the Government of Alberta then increased funding for more staff to add ten more beds for a total of 40. We are currently running between 34-42 beds on a daily basis, and sometimes have to give callers referrals to other shelters in the Province when we have no further availability.

The Odyssey House Emergency Shelter receives funding from the Government of Alberta, and is also supported through donations, fundraising events, project funding, and through the City and County FCSS. Odyssey House is a proud member of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters.

In 2007, the Odyssey House Board of Directors made the decision to build a second-stage apartment building, and a building committee was formed. Provincial “affordable housing” funding was received for $2.3 million. The second-stage project began construction in Spring 2014 and was completed 2015. Grants, gifts in kind, fundraising, and private donations provided the balance of the capital expense for building.

In the fall of 2015, the NDP provincial government announced funding of fifteen million dollars to go towards women shelters in Alberta. Odyssey House received a portion of this funding. We were able to expand our service delivery by adding to our outreach team to continue to support women and their children out in the community regardless of their need related to housing support. We expanded our public education team to reach more children and adults and have conversations around family violence. In the winter of 2016 we secured a partnership with a local counselling agency to be able to provide on-site counselling services to children healing from the effects of trauma related to violence and abuse in their lives.

In addition to enhancing and supporting the emergency shelter, program funding was allocated to support second-stage shelters in Alberta. The doors to Serenity Place, our 14-apartment unit second-stage building opened on January 4, 2016. Serenity Place provides longer term (six months to two years) housing with wrap-around services and support to women and children who have experienced violence in their lives.

Our goal is to provide safe emergency shelter for women and children affected by domestic violence, and to follow through with affordable transitional housing to assist women and their children in leading violence free lives.