Former Leeside Society treasurer Marlene Hamshaw (left) and the society’s executive director for the past 19 years, Marina Martens, held a mortgage-burning ceremony for their Port Hawkesbury transition house during the society’s 15th-anniversary celebrations in 2007.

PORT HAWKESBURY: Twenty-five years after a determined group of volunteers launched the first shelter for abused women between Sydney and New Glasgow, The Leeside Society is planning to mark this milestone with a full day of activities later this month.

Friday, September 15 will see the society welcome visitors to the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre between noon and 2 p.m., with the same venue presenting veteran Cape Breton musicians Carmel Mikol, Wendy MacIsaac and Mary Jane Lamond at 7 p.m.

While this anniversary is bittersweet for the society’s executive director of 19 years, Marina Martens – who told The Reporter that “ideally, we’d like to see the shelter no longer being needed” – the Strait area native is also pleased to see a greater willingness to discuss and address domestic violence and a continued commitment by the society’s volunteer board of directors and community supporters.

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“It’s really remarkable when you think that the shelter got built, because it was completely a community effort,” Martens said Thursday afternoon.

“There was no government person that came to Port Hawkesbury and said, ‘We think you should have a shelter’ – it was completely the other way around.”

With no facility available to serve victims of domestic abuse in southern Cape Breton or northeastern Nova Scotia, along with hesitancy in some corners to even discuss the issue publicly, Martens is marveling at the determination of a group of community residents that began planning to establish Leeside Transition House in the late 1980s.

“It was all volunteers – they oversaw the construction, they made all the bids, they did all the work that, normally, we hire professionals to do,” she noted, noting that the community was required to provide 25 per cent of the funding needed to build the structure, with the provincial and federal governments delivering the rest.

“For a small community, that’s a fairly big undertaking, and they did it… And it’s still because of community support that we’ve been able to operate and expand the services.”

While Leeside Transition House still carries the seven-member full-time staff complement that accompanied its launch in 1992, the society also has as many as 16 staffers with the addition of casual workers. This has gone a long way towards helping the shelter take in 2,920 women and children over the past 20 years, with another 890 visiting the society’s six-year-old Strait Area Women’s Place drop-in centre at 609 Church Street and 92,033 calls to Leeside’s 24-hour crisis line.

Many of these services were jeopardized in 2002 when the Progressive Conservative provincial government of the day announced its plans to close five women’s shelters across the province, including Leeside Transition House, as a cost-cutting measure. The community mobilized its efforts, with hundreds attending rallies of support and 1,600 individual residents writing letters to then-Premier John Hamm, and the society was able to continue its operations.

“They realized that if a small rural community was that up-in-arms, they were going to be in big trouble,” Martens recalled.

Through it all, Martens and her staff have placed the safety and dignity of their clients as the society’s top priority.

“One of the things we try to do when the women come through the door is to say, ‘This is your home, you’re safe here. It’s not your home forever, but it’s a temporary refuge,’” Martens pointed out.

“We’ve heard from women over and over again, how it is a place of refuge for them – it’s a place of safety and of peace. And the staff creates that.”