Nova Scotia

Shelter for domestic violence victims grateful for donations during pandemic

A new granite countertop, along with electrical and plumbing work, are part of a makeover at the Harbour House that's courtesy of businesses in the community who see the shelter as an essential service — particularly during the pandemic.

Harbour House staff worked extra fast to help women and children escaping abuse during COVID-19 lockdown

Jennifer Gagnon, executive director of Harbour House, is thrilled she entered the shelter in a contest for a free granite countertop, and won. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

When the Thanksgiving turkey meal was prepared at Harbour House, a shelter for women and children escaping domestic violence in Bridgewater, N.S., the residents themselves came together to cook in the facility's newly upgraded kitchen.

A new granite countertop, along with electrical and plumbing work, are part of a makeover that's courtesy of businesses in the community who see the shelter as an essential service — particularly during the pandemic, said Jennifer Gagnon, the executive director at South Shore Transition House Association, which operates Harbour House.

"It's a rejuvenator," she said as she stood in the spruced-up kitchen and reflected on helping families out of dangerous situations that arose during COVID-19.

The pandemic left women facing violence trapped at home with their abuser and severely limited their ability to sneak a call for help, said Gagnon.

That meant shelter workers had even less time than in a usual crisis to help women escape an abusive partner. 

When the call would come, shelter staff worked quickly to devise a safety plan to flee the abuser. A call that would typically last an hour would be shortened to 15 minutes, "which is very hard to do in a very short time frame," said Gagnon.

The women and children at Harbour House are able to stay for six weeks. They've personalized the dining table to make the shelter feel homey. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Gagnon said it was "a big awakening" for many people stuck at home during the pandemic lockdown to reflect on how much worse it is for someone who is unable to leave their home due to abuse.

Harbour House is a six-bedroom facility that houses 15 residents. It works with other transition houses across the province to ensure that no woman seeking shelter or counselling is turned away.

Harbour House board chair Jocelyn Kelly says the non-profit is grateful for the community kindness that helps to fill the gap when the operational budget falls short. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

The Bridgewater shelter operates in a 163-year-old mansion that has been repaired, added on to, and made accessible. In the last four years, it's received approximately $700,000 in grants to maintain the aging building never intended as an emergency shelter and counselling centre.

The upkeep is an ongoing struggle.

"We don't always have in our normal operational budget the ability to fix up the items that we need to do. We often have to have additional grants that we apply for and don't always get," said Jocelyn Kelly, the chair of the board at Harbour House. 

Gagnon said most of the province's other eight shelters are in similar shape, and some buildings are even older. While Chrysalis House in Kentville and Bryony House in Halifax are being rebuilt, they're all non-profits that rely on donations from the corporate and private donations to bridge the gap.

"This just brings us back and humbles us to realize that people see our work in shelters and working with women and kids," said Gagnon. "They see violence as an issue and they want to do something about it, and that's beautiful."

There are six bedrooms at Harbour House. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

South Shore company Stonewrights kickstarted the renovation by holding a contest, which Harbour House won, for a new countertop. Langille's Plumbing and Heating and Oickle's Electrical contributed to the cause.

Martina Groeger, co-owner of Stonewrights, selected granite from Brazil in white, grey and black. With neutral countertop colours as a base, she hopes another donor will come through with fresh paint.

Gagnon has received offers locally and from as far away as Yukon to help replace the old, damaged vinyl tiles.

As she continues her mission to make the shelter more comfortable, she noted that it's come a long way from when ripped wallpaper and drab paint covered the walls.

"[The residents] didn't notice that, they just were thankful to be there," said Gagnon.


Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at