Back in the 1980s a small group of concerned men and women met in Stratford to discuss the idea of creating a shelter for abused women and their children. There were already shelters in England and the United States, and one of the first in Canada was in neighboring Woodstock, Ontario.
The group was convinced we needed one too.
In 1982, when NDP Member of Parliament Margaret Mitchell raised the issue of violence against women in the House of Commons, the response was laughter. The subsequent public outcry brought national attention to the issue.
The Stratford steering committee commissioned a needs assessment, got the confirmation it expected, then began canvassing local churches and service clubs for financial support.
Then came the best possible Christmas present in 1982.
Just before the holidays, the Optimist Club of Stratford announced it would buy a house that could be used as a women’s shelter, then lease it back to the committee for $1 a year. To both honor the club’s generosity and express the feeling the shelter hoped to impart to the women who’d be staying there, the name Optimism Place was chosen.
Different groups came together that winter and spring to work on the house, raise money and donate furnishings. Optimism Place officially opened in May 1983. Soon after, funding came forward from both the Province of Ontario and the City of Stratford. Ever since, Optimism Place has had a steady stream of residents, serving more than 100 women and children a year.
By the end of the 1980s it became obvious that six weeks at Optimism Place wasn’t always enough time for women to put their lives back together. When provincial funding became available for second-stage housing, Optimism Place answered the call and opened a new unit with 20 apartments. Originally called Optimism Place Phase Two, it was later renamed the Emily Murphy Centre. Today the two facilities are separate organizations.
The original Optimism Place, in an old house near the city’s centre, was homey, but it was cramped and upkeep was expensive. It was also inaccessible to disabled and senior women. Thanks to $1 million in provincial funding, in 1994 Optimism Place was able to build a new, larger, bright, and fully accessible shelter on the city limits.
Optimism Place, which now has an office in North Perth, hopes to one day also provide safe beds in Listowel.