Esther Elder is the CEO of Discovery House, a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Calgary. PHOTO: BRAD SIMM

When Esther Elder fled her abusive relationship, she was severely concussed. Her ex-boyfriend had bashed her head against a tree just a few days before. Still recovering, she spent the night in a motel with a friend.

Shortly after dinner, the phone rang and the caller asked for Elder. She recognized the voice of her abuser. When Elder asked how he’d found her, he told her to look out the window. Turning, she immediately felt paralyzed. Elder’s abuser was staring directly at her.

“My legs were, I can remember, like water,” Elder says. “I couldn’t even hold myself up anymore.”

The traumatic experience has inspired Elder to end gender-based violence in Calgary. She is now CEO of domestic violence shelter Discovery House. But the COVID-19 pandemic has caused unexpected challenges for that shelter, and Elder is working harder than ever to ensure the shelter remains a reliable option for women and children.

Shared experiences

Elder can relate to those women as a result of her own experience with intimate partner violence.

When she became involved in her own abusive relationship, she didn’t know what that violence looked like. However, Elder clearly remembers how the abuse escalated slowly in a cycle of coercive control followed by making up.

“The abuser apologizes and is very, very kind, and you feel very, very special and you’re convinced it will never happen again,” Elder says. “And then it does happen again.”

“I see them transition out of our programs whole and healed and excited about what the future can be.”

eSTHER eLDER

Her abuser had cracked her cheekbone and rib and bit off a small piece of her ear before Elder left. But her abuser followed her, and she continued to experience coercive control for the next 12 months.

One night, Elder was walking home from work. Unbeknownst to her, Elder’s abuser had hidden in the bushes. He jumped out and grabbed her, leaving her shocked and disoriented.

“These are tactics that he would kind of use to just remind me that he was there.”

Although Elder had broken off the relationship, it took years for it to truly end. Elder remembers feeling both empowered and afraid after becoming independent.

“When you give your power away, or someone else is controlling everything, you’re not free at all,” Elder says. “So it felt wonderful, but it was also scary in that I didn’t know what it would look like moving forward.”

Elder feels she can make a difference in the domestic violence sector due to these personal experiences. Leaving her own abusive relationship has allowed her to understand the complexities of fleeing intimate partner violence.

“For some people who don’t quite understand domestic violence or intimate partner violence, you might think, well, why don’t you just leave?” Elder says. “But recognizing and understanding the barriers that are in the way of just leaving. It’s not a matter of, I want to leave, it’s a matter of, is it safe to leave?”

Creating a framework to end abuse 

When Elder was asked to join Discovery House, she valued the opportunity to help victims find a safe haven.

Discovery House is a second-stage shelter which provides longer-term housing for women and children rebuilding their lives. Elder finds the work there incredibly rewarding.

“I see a renewed sense of hope that things are going to be better,” Elder says. “A renewed sense of life.”

Since 2015, only three per cent of families have returned to Discovery House, which Elder believes is a testament to their success helping women and children.

“I see them transition out of our programs whole and healed and excited about what the future can be,” Elder says.

Discovery House helps women and children heal and rebuild their lives, and become equipped to live independently free from domestic violence. PHOTO: @DISCOVERY_HOUSE ON INSTAGRAM

During her tenure, Elder has provided evidence-based data for funders to understand the impact of their donations. Her psychology background has also helped Discovery House create a prevention and intervention framework to end the cycle of abuse for women and children.

Still, Elder is quick to acknowledge that running the organization is a group effort.

“My leadership approach is very much, we’re all one big team,” Elder says. “So the success of Discovery House doesn’t lie on any one person, not the CEO, not one clinician. It’s all of us really working together.”

Elder says that just as everyone needs to do their part to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, everyone needs to do their part to stop domestic violence.

“COVID, obviously, is a big deal. I’m not saying it’s not,” Elder explains. “It is, but it’s got a lot of media attention, it’s been brought to the forefront.”

Elder believes that before this COVID-19 pandemic, there was already a domestic violence pandemic. The Calgary Police Service responded to approximately 25,000 calls related to domestic violence in 2019, well above the five-year average.

“Based on the numbers alone, it’s a pandemic, and it’s a pandemic that hasn’t received the media attention it needs to,” Elder says. “It hasn’t received the funding from the government that it needs to.”

Discovery House needs to raise approximately $1.2 million annually to address that funding gap. Now, this deadly underfunding problem has been worsened by the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, women are in lockdown with their abusers 24/7 and cannot make calls for help.

“They’re very limited as to how they can reach out or notify someone that this is what’s happening and they need help because their abusers won’t let them,” Elder explains. “And they wouldn’t want their abusers to know they’re calling for help because they don’t want to be abused or beat up or anything like that. They want to appease their abusers so that there’s no escalation of abuse.”

Discovery House is struggling to provide critical resources to those women due to COVID-19. Elder explains that the shelter’s yearly budget was created prior to the pandemic and new challenges — from technological expenses of working remotely to cleaning and sanitation costs — have arisen.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Calgary Food Bank was able to provide assistance to Discovery House. Now, Discover House has to spend an additional $6,000 each month on food alone.

“What it puts at risk really is our ability to continue providing the life-saving programs and services that we do for the number of women and children,” Elder explains.

“We serve about 600, of which about 453 are children, every year.”

Elder hopes that these women and children can continue to receive the help they need, and the community will take an interest in ending domestic violence by supporting Discovery House’s programs.

“We’ve got to wake up, we need to take note and we need to each do our part to stop domestic violence,” Elder says.

Many agencies have been looking for funders after additional costs and charitable dollars have been spread thin. Still, Elder isn’t shy about putting her message out there and asking for financial support from donors.

“I would say that their financial contribution is not only saving lives,” Elder says. “It’s directly breaking the cycle of domestic violence by supporting Discovery House to provide trauma informed, evidence-based programs so that women and children can heal, build resiliency and be equipped to live independently free from domestic violence.”

Editor’s note: This article was first published in our Jan/Feb print edition. Since the story first appeared there, Esther Elder has moved on to a different role at Discovery House.