Nanaimo women organize on Facebook to deliver low-barrier support for women in need

Nanaimo Women Helping Women and Mamas for Mamas group members say these online communities help fill gaps in local services.
A woman stands holding a suitcase.
Grassroots Facebook groups like Nanaimo Women Helping Women have the flexibility to take immediate action to support someone in need, organizers and members say. Photo by Rae-Anne Guenther/The Discourse

Content warning: This story contains descriptions and statistics related to family and intimate partner violence. Please read with care.

An 18-year-old student was desperately trying to flee abuse from her mother’s partner. Being a minor, seeking refuge in a transition house wasn’t an option without parental consent, and other organizations in the community couldn’t assist her due to their requirements. That’s where members of the Facebook group Nanaimo Women Helping Women stepped in. 

“The school counsellor reached out to us on behalf of the young person and within 24 hours the girl had a safe place to live,” says Kerri Isham, a sexual health educator and co-founder of the group. “That is the kind of magic our group keeps producing.” 

Members of the group then supplied the young woman with toiletries and gift cards for groceries and a haircut. 

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Isham and a group of friends started Nanaimo Women Helping Women in the fall of 2021 after watching the popular Netflix series Maid, where a young mother fleeing an abusive partner is forced to overcome a complicated support system to give her daughter a better life.

They believed they could help women in Nanaimo facing similar challenges. Unencumbered by brick-and-mortar operating hours and age restrictions, the grassroots group has the flexibility to take immediate action to support someone in need.  

As local support services continue to be stretched thin, small responsive groups like Nanaimo Women Helping Women appear to be filling a gap in the community. Online groups also provide a way for people to ask for help from peers as opposed to formal organizations.

“I wanted to create this group where we all become very emotionally connected to one another so that when requests are made, there is an actual heart pulling for people to do the work,” says Isham. The group administrators work toward this goal by encouraging participation within the Facebook group and hosting in-person meetups to fundraise and socialize.

The group has grown to more than 800 members and is focused on supporting self-identifying women experiencing or at risk of all forms of crisis, such as intimate partner violence, homelessness or sexual violence. 

Since the group was founded in October 2021, Isham estimates they have raised more than $20,000 and supported over 50 women on Vancouver Island, reaching from Port Alberni to the Cowichan Valley. The support has looked different for every woman in need, from temporary hotel stays to children’s clothes to car insurance so a mother can get to work. 

While the grassroots organization aims to provide immediate, low-barrier assistance, the group asks individuals to reach out to local organizations such as Cedar Woman House, Risebridge or counsellors for referrals. 

A green plastic basket sits full of cleaning supplies
Cleaning supplies donated by members of the Nanaimo Women Helping Women were recently delivered to women moving into new residences. Photo courtesy of Kerri Isham

Intimate partner violence impacts people of all genders and sexualities and isn’t limited to physical abuse; Violence can present as emotional or financial manipulation and control, such as an abuser who blocks access to employment or education. 

Immediate support is key to ensuring the safety of a person leaving a toxic or violent situation. In Canada, a woman is killed by an intimate partner every six days, according to estimates from Statistics Canada, and the most dangerous time for a woman is immediately after they leave. It’s estimated that up to one in three women face intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Rates and intensity of intimate partner violence increased during the COVID-19 pandemic

“I have a great appreciation for the work the group is doing,” says one member of the Facebook group, via messenger. “As a woman who left a violent situation with my two young children almost 40 years ago and used the services of safe houses and other supports… [just knowing] that someone cares makes all the difference at times like that.” 

Group members range from young women fleeing violence to seniors who may have already experienced that trauma and are passing their wisdom on to others. Some are just motivated women wanting to take action to support their peers.

A thoughtful conversation and a few nights’ stay in a hotel helped one woman create a plan for her future. “I’ve applied for schooling. Things are definitely looking up and I have the group to thank for getting me somewhere to get my bearings and sort out a plan.”

Nanaimo Women Helping Women collaborates with Nanaimo Family Life Association, Literacy Central Vancouver Island, Risebridge, Cedar Women House, Island Crisis Care Society and many more. 

Haven Society answered 2,981 crisis calls last year and supported 409 clients, according to its annual report. As needs in the community continue to grow in face of the rising financial demand of living,  these groups are becoming a lifeline for local people. 

Mamas for Mamas delivers support to local caregivers

Isham often shares posts of items in excess, such as clothing and diapers, to the Mamas for Mamas Nanaimo Facebook group

Mamas for Mamas is a non-profit organization quickly growing throughout Canada to support mothers in need. The Nanaimo division, which started four years ago, also focuses on filling the gaps in the community. 

Mamas for Mamas has a “tiny bundles” program, which provides diapers, wipes and formula to caregivers in need twice a month. They have a common market where people can come in person and shop for free. Mamas for Mamas also has a sustainable nourishment program where they work alongside Nanaimo Foodshare, Loaves and Fishes and other volunteers to provide meals to families in need.

The Mamas for Mamas organization has peer-led Facebook groups for mothers in every region they serve. In the Nanaimo Facebook group, mothers exchange children’s items for free. They also have a men’s only group. The engagement from the Facebook groups creates a village mentality for these women, who — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — have felt increasingly isolated, says Leslie Harris, branch coordinator for Mamas for Mamas Nanaimo. 

Similar to Nanaimo Woman Helping Women, the  Mamas for Mamas group can take immediate action to support caregivers without the burden of regulations. 

“For instance, the Nanaimo Hospital Foundation will help house women while they’re pregnant, but the moment the baby comes out, they can’t help any longer; whereas we can continue helping. We don’t have those barriers,” says Harris. 

Isham says the generosity of the group members and various companies in the community continue to motivate her. She points to a group member who recently offered to host a weekly yoga class to raise funds for women in need, while also providing self-care to women. 

Isham hopes to attract monthly funders, so they can redirect their time from fundraising efforts to connecting and supporting more women in the community, though the group is not a registered charity.

“When women come together, it’s a powerful thing.”

Editor’s Note Sept. 16, 2022: This story was updated to reflect that Nanaimo Women Helping Women no longer collaborates with Haven Society.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, there are a number of local resources to help:

  • Women and children in need of transition housing can contact Haven Society at 1-888-756-0616 and Cedar Woman House at 250-591-5580
  • Kw’umut Lelum has resources to support local First Nation members at 250-591-0933 
  • People in need of counselling can contact Nanaimo Family Life Association for access to services, including counsellors who specialize in supporting survivors of sexual assault, 250-754-3331
  • Children and youth can contact the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s Helpline for Children at 310-1234 anytime, no area code is necessary. Youth can also visit YouthinBC for more resources

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