Translation by Rosemary Baptista
This all started when abused women and children from the Portuguese community sought help at a church in West Toronto. The demand was so great that, in 1990, Abrigo Centre officially started with four full-time employees acting as a resource for these victims. Later, the agency became a registered charity. In 1993, it became a member of the United Way Greater Toronto.
As much as many may think that the name of the agency refers to a residential shelter for women, that is not the case, Abrigo Centre offers several services, including: community development and integration program; assistance in completing government forms; parenting group; individual counseling; newcomer and settlement services; domestic violence response program; educational, recreational and Seniors’ Support Group and Assistance; adolescents against gender violence; violence against women (counseling); volunteer opportunities, etc.
Services offered at Abrigo Centre are available to all residents of the Greater Toronto area, and not only to Portuguese speakers.
“Since its inception, Abrigo Centre has adopted the vision that our customers know themselves and their situation better. Our counselors listen, take notes and offer suggestions about the programs and services we offer. But the client self manages the direction of their care. They are provided options and opportunities to improve themselves and their situations, but in the end, it is always their choice to proceed with caution.” – says Fundraising and Communications Manager Gerald Luciano of Abrigo Centre.
“During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic (fiscal 2019/20), the total number of clients served by the agency was 6,564 and we had 121 volunteers. The following year (fiscal 2020/21) the number of clients was just over 3,700 and we had 43 volunteers. It certainly took a lot of adjustment. Abrigo Centre certainly saw an increase in violence against women in the first two years of the COVID pandemic because of the multiple shutdowns, which left many perpetrators and their victims spending almost all their time together. When COVID first hit, we immediately shifted to offering online (virtual) and telephone counseling. This was done to accommodate our clients needs while our office was physically closed. We streamlined our intake system to better screen these clients.” says Gerald.
Interview with Cidalia Pereira
Cidalia Pereira, Counselling Team Lead for Violence Against Women Program, has a degree in Social Services. She has over 20 years of experience in the sector working with abused women; supporting them, increasing their safety and reducing the risk of violence. She supports the team in assessing and responding to the needs of women and children, as well as seeking resources and support to address the many issues they face.
WAVE – According to the Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, “1 in 3 women and 1 in 8 men in Canada will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, yet many do not know how to get help”. How can Abrigo Centre help these women? Does Abrigo Centre also serve men who are victims of sexual violence or any type of violence?
Cidalia – Abuse can take many forms, including emotional, physical, financial and sexual violence. Abrigo Centre is widely known in the Portuguese-speaking community for providing services to women suffering any of these forms of abuse. If necessary, we refer customers to external resources who may have more experience in one of these areas.
Occasionally, we have male clients who have experienced physical abuse from their partner or spouse. They are seen by one of our advisors or referred to a more appropriate agency if necessary.
WAVE – How do you prepare your team to deal with such a heavy and delicate topic?
Cidalia – This is definitely a challenge. Over the past two years, the team has worked continuously from a trauma-informed perspective. We are working significantly more on education about these issues and on self-care to ensure team members remain mentally healthy and provide the best possible care for everyone.
WAVE – How does your department update itself to new challenges?
Cidalia – Changing our admission system, in April 2022, was something significant and for the better. Women receive care much more quickly today than in the past. We know that domestic violence is not going to magically disappear. Therefore, it is our duty to ensure that our clients receive the best care, as quickly as possible, at our agency or at one of our partner agencies in the social service sector.
Interview with Valeria Sales
Valeria Sales, Abrigo Centre’s Volunteer Coordinator, acts as Team Leader for the Community Development and Integration Program, which provides information on all credits and benefits available to customers. The program creates a unique service plan based on the customer’s needs and requests. Valeria also facilitates parenting workshops for women, including one entitled “Success by Six”. She has a degree in social and community services, speech language pathology and a master’s degree in psychomotricity-child development. Valeria has been with the agency for almost 23 years.
WAVE – What is the importance of volunteering?
Valeria – Volunteering has been the invisible backbone of the programs and services that our agency offers. Each volunteer is fully trained. Some assist clients directly, while many others assist our counselors, who are experienced in a wide variety of tasks. As an agency, we have been blessed with a long history of loyal and dedicated volunteers, and we cannot thank each one of them enough.
WAVE – How can someone volunteer at Abrigo Centre? What kind of educational background should they have? Do they need Portuguese language?
Valeria – Anyone can volunteer at the Abrigo Centre. Just call our agency (416-534-3434) or visit our website (www.abrigo.ca) to learn how. You just need to bring with you a healthy spirit and desire to help others. Our volunteers come from all types of backgrounds, education levels and language skills. It helps to know how to speak Portuguese, because most of our customers speak that language, but it is certainly not a requirement.
WAVE – Is there any kind of training for volunteers at the Abrigo Centre?
Valeria – Yes, we assess in which area of our organization the person would like to be a volunteer and they will receive all the necessary training to fulfill the assigned duties.
WAVE – In 2021, there were 43 volunteers; in 2020 there were 121. How was it to adapt and recruit volunteers during a pandemic?
Valeria – Before the pandemic, we often had 120+ volunteers in the office annually, but when we entered lockdown, the office was physically closed, and our volunteers had to go virtually as well. However, some also drifted away. Many of these 40 or so volunteers were doing wellness checks on members of our seniors’ program. The most highly trained and experienced volunteers were helping customers over the phone. Obviously, our volunteer program was impacted, but there was valuable work being done daily. It just was not being done at the office. During the last fiscal year (2022/23) 73 volunteers provided a total of 9,501 hours to the agency.
WAVE – How do you see the volunteer department moving forward?
Valeria – With the gradual shift to 4 full weekdays in the office, our volunteers are slowly returning to the numbers we saw before COVID. It is also clear that virtual counseling or telephone services are not going away. This hybrid model will become part of our culture, for our clients, employees and volunteers. So, it is an interesting mix going forward. In fact, our volunteers sometimes join us for a single day or a single activity, such as Portugal Day parade. Others provide hundreds of hours of committed service each year. This will not change going forward.
Service and opportunities at the Abrigo Centre
Abrigo Centre’s Client Virtual Services are offered from Monday to Friday, from 9:00 to 12:00 in the morning and in the afternoon, from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Clients and anyone interested in our services can call, leave their name and phone number and our office staff will return the call from a confidential phone number within 48 hours.
Abrigo Centre is always looking for volunteers who want to help others in the community.
Call 416-534-3434 and ask for Valeria Sales, Volunteer Coordinator. Additionally, if you are a social work student seeking a placement and you are fluent in Portuguese, please call the main number listed above. This is a wonderful opportunity for you to develop your support, social service and management skills. Abrigo Centre also offers summer jobs for young people in the Canada Summer Jobs program.
Tel.: 416-534-3434 | Text: 416-534-8026
E-mail: [email protected]