Dela Hoorfar (left) and Athena Guertin (right) support self-identified women at SFU through the SFSS Women’s Centre.

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SFSS Women's Centre sends help—and hope—during pandemic

March 08, 2021
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By Julie Ovenell

It’s getting a little crowded in Athena Guertin’s tiny downtown apartment these days.

Almost exactly a year ago, just as she was looking forward to the opening of a brand-new space in SFU’s long-anticipated Student Union Building, the coordinator of the Simon Fraser Student Society’s Women’s Centre instead had to make the quick pivot to working from home. 

Today, one year into a global pandemic, she continues to deliver on the 53-year-old centre’s mandate from her front room, serving and supporting all self-identified women at SFU. 

“I really had to figure out how to prioritize the needs of especially lower-income women during COVID-19,” says Guertin, who began her career at the Centre in 2008 as a student volunteer and became the Centre’s coordinator in January 2020. 

“There has been an unrelenting stream of very stressed women these past months. I think the Centre’s biggest value in this climate has been our ability to evolve on the fly and respond quickly to whatever it is women say they need. I know our mailing program is making a huge difference for many people right now.” 

Hence, the current clutter in Guertin’s home: tampons, face masks, pregnancy tests, and safer sex supplies are just a few of the items available without charge to women in need via the Centre’s mailing program. (Students registered at SFU and Fraser International College can email Guertin at womenscentre-admin@sfss.ca to discuss their unique needs.)  

“Since last fall, we’ve sent out more than 1,000 orders of supplies. Our larger mission is to support women and further the cause of social justice. So it may seem like a drop in the bucket to be mailing out condoms and menstrual supplies, but I like to remind myself that the bucket won’t get filled without all those little drops!”

In pre-pandemic times, the Centre provided a safer space for self-identified women and their allies to meet, with a comfortable lounge, a well-stocked lending library and snacks. 

With doors now temporarily closed, it’s harder for women to gather—a disconnect resulting in increased loneliness and depression. Guertin receives many calls each month from distressed women and does her best to point them to free online resources, such as text-based counselling services. 

As well, the Centre is continuing its legacy of education and dialogue with a special online panel discussion on Women in Leadership to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. “I’m really excited to share this conversation,” says Guertin. “We’ve invited the participants to talk about their journey and offer their best tips and advice for aspiring young women leaders.”

While the Centre is striving to cultivate a robust digital presence via Facebook and Instagram, Guertin is looking eagerly ahead to when women will once again be able to come together in person at the Women’s Centre, and she can have closer contact with resource and outreach assistant, Dela Hoorfar, and other colleagues. 

“While there is still much work to be done, we owe a debt of gratitude to the volunteer students, leaders, board members and community partners who have worked tirelessly to foster an environment of equality.”

Meantime, she’s “super excited about setting the tone of the new centre—I want to make it as interesting and beautifully welcoming as possible.” She laughs: “And let’s be honest: it will be great to get all this stuff out of my house!”

You can connect with the SFSS Women’s Centre on Facebook and Instagram: @sfsswomenscentre.

Visit SFU's Equity, Diversity and Inclusion website to learn how you can get involved in International Women's Day at SFU, and for a comprehensive list of supports available to SFU faculty, staff and students.