Visitation House offers food to nourish body and soul

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Walking into Visitation House is like visiting a friend’s home. Colourful afghans are draped over couches and chairs, smells of good food waft toward the door and there’s a friendly face at the door.

Greeting visitors is executive director, Theresa Hilbig, the heart and soul of Visitation House. She serves some of Regina’s poorest in an unassuming building on 11th Avenue.

Many drop by for a hot meal prepared by volunteers and served at noon Monday to Thursday. It’s more substantial than what was offered when Visitation House opened in 2000 as a drop-in centre.

“Women could come in, grab a coffee, read a newspaper, use the phone and we had some cookies on the counter,” Hilbig says. “Then I realized that the women wanted more than that. They wanted to hang out and to talk and be with each other. And cookies? Not very nutritious!” 

Over the years, a community has evolved as women help one another.

“When they walk in the door, they feel safe here and cared about,” Hilbig says.

She counsels those seeking help, refers them to services and offers an empathetic ear.

Some girls work on the street, others are trying to turn their lives around. There are lonely older women, who yearn for fellowship, and mothers, whose children are in care, working to get them back.

“I just saw a lady today who was really excited to let me know that tomorrow is the day she’s getting her kids back,” Hilbig says. “We’ve had women who’ve been addicted and gotten sober. This is kind of a safe place for them. They come regularly and let us know, ‘I’m still sober!’ ”

Some go through donated clothes, others pick up free bread. Whatever their reason for being there, all are welcome for circle time where they might read from the Bible or share stories from their day.  

“It’s humbling to sit with the women and hear their stories,” Hilbig says.

Stories often centre around abuse and death.

One young mother of five children, who calls Hilbig “Mama,” has been abused for years. 

“She has one guy after another beating her up,” Hilbig says. “Part of that is because she can’t afford her rent so these guys say, ‘We’ll help you.’ ”

At times she’s overcome by emotion hearing their stories.

That happened when a woman told her about a nightmare experience that occurred more than 30 years ago and continues to haunt her. The woman was going out of town, so she left her three kids with her sister. 

“The police came to the door and said, ‘You have to come with us, but we’re going to take you to the hospital first and give you a sedative’ and she said, ‘No! What’s going on?’ 

“(Her ex-husband) had come to the house, took the sister, tied her up in the basement and he killed the three kids and himself,” Hilbig says. “She’s telling me the story and I couldn’t contain myself and I’m apologizing. She didn’t have any emotion left because I’m sure that she’d cried for 30 years.”

Women don’t have to be Christian to go to Visitation House. During circle time, prayers are sometimes said in Cree.

“Some of the women will call God ‘Creator,’ they’ll say, ‘My greater power’ or a ‘power greater than myself’ — it’s not necessarily the God of my understanding, it’s the God of their understanding,” Hilbig says.

During circle time, the women talk about the difficulty they have putting a roof over their heads, never mind buy groceries.

It’s a growing problem.

Enough food has trickled in so the centre can continue to provide hot lunches, but there are no extras.

“I understand that we aren’t a food bank and that isn’t our mandate,” Hilbig said. “But if I have it, I’m certainly going to give it to the ladies who ask.” 

She’s no stranger to tough times. The single mother raised her four children on student loans as she put herself through university and earned social work and psychology degrees in addition to a masters in educational psychology. 

Between her life experience and education, she can connect with those who walk through the doors, often downhearted, hungry and broke.

Visitation House receives 30 per cent of its funding from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese and the rest from donors.

One of their strongest supporters is Father John Weckend from St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church. He’s run in the Queen City Marathon for 17 years — including eight full marathons and raises between $10,000 and $14,000 per year. 

The 71-year-old priest knows Visitation House runs on a very tight budget to serve women who are socially and economically disadvantaged.

“Probably the second year that I ran the Queen City, I thought as long as I’m doing this, let’s see if people are willing to contribute — it’s not often you get a clergyman to run marathons,” says the 71-year-old priest.

Over the years, Visitation House has stayed small.

“We’ve talked about getting a bigger building, doing more things like hiring more staff and having a counselling room, but it always has seemed the better idea is to keep it small — small things, small miracles,” Hilbig says. “It’s a place of healing. Being part of the experience here will change you. I am blessed that this is my job.” 

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Photo Credits: Michael Bell/Regina Leader-Post