A Safe Space

ARIDO’s latest ROI project supports the fight against human trafficking in Canada.

At first, Casandra Diamond thought it was a prank call. Someone named Sharon Portelli, who claimed to be the executive director and registrar of something called ARIDO, was offering her organization’s expertise in redesigning and renovating the offices of BridgeNorth, Diamond’s small registered charity that counsels and advocates for women and girls who have been sexually exploited. Then she thought it must be a company trying to sell its services. “Um, we just had the place painted,” she explained, hoping to stave them off.

But Portelli persisted and soon enough, Diamond found herself seated around her workspace table (“the crappiest table you ever saw”) with Portelli, Lucia De Biasio of LDB Design, SCI Interiors’s Mahesh Babooram and Dayna Bradley from Brigholme Interiors Group. “All of these amazing people,” Diamond calls them. They asked her what she envisaged for her staff and program participants. “I started immediately to dream, because I recognized the scope of what was possible.” The end result, she says, “was exactly what I had imagined.”

LDB Design created this abstract mural for the reception area. Young girls spell out the word LOVE against a blurred backdrop of an Ontario lake and a collage of BridgeNorth program participants.

The remodelling of BridgeNorth’s modest offices located just north of Toronto is the fifth project taken on by the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario since the organization launched its Renew Originate Implement (ROI) endeavour in 2013, aimed at improving the lives of workers and user groups in local charitable communities. De Biasio, principal of LDB Design, took the lead.

“The space was in a commercially zoned residential-type of house,” she says. “Very small, very bare-bones, with uniform colouration, bad acoustics and no special features.” With donated help and furnishings from suppliers too numerous to mention, the ARIDO collective installed sound panelling, anti-breach film on the windows, soft carpeting tiles on the floors, and lightly hued paint on the walls. “The program participants needed a homelike experience as well as a protected refuge where they  could feel safe for the first time in a long time,” says De Biasio.

Numerically controlled lockers sit just behind the reception desk. For safety and psychological reasons, visitors must put away all personal effects, including their cellphones, before moving inside.

Human trafficking is a hideously successful industry: the third largest criminal enterprise in the world. In Canada, it affects untold thousands of mostly female victims, whose average entry age into sexual slavery is between 12 and 14 years old. Ontario acts as a trafficking hub, with 66 per cent of offences reported to police in recent years occurring here. And, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of victims — 93 per cent — are not from somewhere else but Canadians lured and groomed into selling their bodies for other people’s profit.

Diamond was a victim herself. Once she’d escaped this horrific sub-culture, she decided to dedicate her life to saving others like her. In addition to offering direct services and counselling at BridgeNorth (www.bridgenorth.org), Diamond is a strong victims’ advocate and educator on human trafficking, working with youth at Covenant House as well as enlightening the general public. Indeed, her most recent appearance at a TEDx panel discussion is now available online at tedxtoronto.com.

Lucia De Biasio speaks for the entire ARIDO team in stating that working on the BridgeNorth ROI was not only highly rewarding, it opened her eyes to what is happening in Canada to Canadians. It taught them too that extraordinary care needs to be taken when trying to establish trust with sexual exploitation victims. For instance, De Biasio says, “we wanted the durability of commercial-grade furniture, but we had a distinct mandate not to choose furnishings, artwork or colours that made the place look like a hotel.” For obvious reasons, even the sight of a hotel room can act as an emotional trigger to exploitation victims.

The ROI team created a private and secure counselling room as well as a main area lounge, both designed to look and feel like a home. Special care was taken in selecting furnishings to avoid triggering negative associations.

Making the counselling room both private and homey was another important aspect of the remodelling. The open-to-all sunken room caused De Biasio and her team no little grief, particularly since the BridgeNorth offices are leased and therefore couldn’t be permanently altered. “What we did was add a temporary raised floor — the ceiling height was still good — and then put in a door,” the designer states. They also covered the upper half of an old fireplace with millwork that suggests a living room fireplace and mantelpiece.

The addition of a shower stall in the washroom allows incoming participants to bathe in a dignified and secure environment, something victims of human trafficking can be daily denied.

The team redecorated the main group-work area into a cozy lounge mimicking a family room, filled with eclectic furnishings, throw pillows and a donated TV. The boardroom, used for training program participants and internal staff meetings, now features mobile work tables for greater flexibility as well as plenty of bulletin boards and writable surfaces. The team also opened up the excuse of a kitchen that was there before, turning it into a real kitchen, complete with a washer and dryer, and an island-esque table where participants can learn cooking as both a basic life skill and potential new job option. Perhaps most vital, the team installed a full washroom with a shower. “It was very important to have that shower,” says De Biasio. “When someone is controlling you — when you eat, when or if you can bathe — even something this small helps you recover your dignity, it lowers your anxiety and stress level.” Often, staff will wash and fold a participant’s clothes while she’s in the shower so she’ll have something nice and clean to change into.

Sharon Portelli also calls the BridgeNorth experience eye-opening. “I think everyone involved in this project has been greatly impacted in terms of what’s happening in Ontario. We had no idea how big this crime is, nor the number of Canadian girls and women being trafficked. We believe this is a serious domestic issue which requires more resources.”

Because interior design is a predominantly female profession, the issue resonates more nearly with ARIDO members. As a consequence, Portelli says the organization’s fundraising activities will be committed to supporting BridgeNorth over the next couple of years, and quite likely beyond.

Photography by Yianni Tong