A hand up for a sister

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Sometimes you meet someone who has had such a good idea you expect it will endure, like the wheel or light bulbs.

When Judith Sept moved from Toronto to Stratford (Ontario) in 2006 she brought a brilliant idea with her. It’s called the Basketeer program. Women are encouraged to buy a laundry basket and fill it with themed items like bedroom and beauty products or kitchen essentials.

The baskets go to women’s emergency shelters like Optimism Place and Huron Women’s Shelter, and second-stage housing like The Emily Murphy Centre. They are given to women who are primarily invisible and have suffered violence at the hands of people they loved.

What a revolutionary idea.

The kids get presents because there is no end to the organizations that collect toys and raise money. It feels good to help kids. But the mothers aren’t even on the radar—it’s a terrible continuation of the invisibility and isolation many of these women suffered while living in a home filled with violence.

These are women, particularly at The Emily Murphy Centre, who are about to take steps back into a world that has not always been kind, to say the least. A world that has been consistently indifferent and at best not terribly helpful.

So these baskets are about them. It acknowledges the sacrifices mothers so often make for their kids. The basket says to women who have been unseen, “we see you.”

The “we” is a nameless and faceless group of women who stuff laundry baskets full of the basics like shampoo and soap as well “luxury items” like mascara or a spa gift certificate.

The book club I belong to, Penney’s Pages, is one of many groups that has been participating in the Basketeer Program for several years now. We pick a theme or two and then go shopping.

Penney’s Pages members, from left, Joanne, Mary, Carole, Laura, Carol and Cindy on basket drop-off day. Photo: Christy Bertrand.

This is the moment when we ask ourselves what it would be like to be lonely and scared and the only responsible adult for our kids. What would we miss if we had nothing? A soft blanket, lip gloss, a book. It may sound frivolous but it’s not. It’s the smallest form of justice.

While her abuser is out socializing with friends, getting coffee at Tim Hortons, and possibly spending good money on something stupid like those testicle ornaments that hang from truck hitches, she’s hidden away in a locked facility, trying to put her life back together. She’s trying to feel worthy and normal. And with any luck good enough. Good enough to avoid the kind of man who denies her freedom and resources. Who beats or rapes her or both and makes her feel small.

And while she does all that, there’s a basket that represents a group of women who are cheering her on. Women she doesn’t know and to whom she need not ever feel beholden. The basket and everything in it is free in the truest sense.

Eleven years on and the program continues, only now it’s organized by a new dynamo, Christy Bertrand. Thank goodness for that because the shelters in Stratford are typically full or close to it and I suspect that’s the case in communities across Canada. Wouldn’t it be great if this program blossomed beyond the 14 communities participating and landed in every city and town with a shelter?

Anne McDonnell, executive director at Optimism Place, and Lisa Wilde, executive director of  The Emily Murphy Centre, have been on the front lines for decades. It’s fair to say they’ve seen it all and in abundance.

One story Lisa can’t forget is when a woman got her basket and just sobbed. The woman confided she had never had a pillow that she didn’t have to share and that was brand new.

A pillow. I have trouble sharing blankets.

And to be really honest if a pillow was one of my Christmas gifts it would get tossed aside in the same way I chucked new underwear out of my stocking when I was four. My life is full of the kind of entitlement in which necessities are expected but don’t pass muster as gifts.

We have become so satisfied with doing the bare minimum. Women who have been subjected to violence and find an empty bed at a shelter are expected to be grateful. While executive directors across the province try to get more money and operate more programs.

For this we need not wait on government funding, that may never materialize. This program is about women doing more. This is about us saying we believe you and you’re not to blame.

I don’t care if she went back 12 times before she had the courage to leave for good. I don’t care if she knew he was jealous and put on makeup before going to the bar—he’s responsible for his own behaviour let’s get that straight. I don’t care if she was a drug user or never smoked a cigarette in her life. None of it matters.

What I care about is second chances. As women we have more power than we realize. We have incomes, we have connections, we talk, and some of us have brilliant ideas that are carried on by people with the guts to try and the faith that other women will step up.

If the system does not fail her and her abuser goes to jail, that’s a little bit more justice. But it won’t amount to the kind of time she’s already spent in a jail without oversight, a lawyer, a complaints process, guaranteed food, guaranteed medical attention, and her own pillow.

To learn more or start a program in your community check out https://basketeers.org/about.

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