Manuela Whitford and her husband Darrell load a van of donated goods at a small warehouse south of Brisbane.
Darrell will move the furniture and household items into what they call “sanctuaries,” rented homes where people fleeing domestic violence can resume their lives.
“When people leave, they might just take a backpack,” says Ms Whitford, 48.
“So we try to equip them with donated goods like tables, mattresses; everything they need to furnish a house.”
It’s all thanks to her nonprofit Friends with Dignity, which has so far supplied $8 million worth of goods to abuse survivors across Australia. And the demand is rising rapidly.
Manuela Whitford at the Friends with Dignity office in Brisbane. Credit: australiabusinessblog / Matt Gast
“We’ve been inundated with requests and in the past week alone we’ve helped put together five homes,” said Ms Whitford.
She founded the charity in 2015 to help men, women and children affected by abuse, and she is no stranger to violence.
In 2009, the trained nurse was on her way to work in her home city of Johannesburg, South Africa, when she was violently attacked on a public street.
“They were verbally abusive and demanded money. They grabbed my arms and pushed me to the floor, causing my arms to swell and bruise,” she says.
“I felt completely alone, even though I was surrounded by many people. But no one reached out to help me.”
It would change her life forever.
“I made the decision that I would not be a spectator. If I knew about violence or saw something like that, I would help that person.”
Manuela Whitford sorted donated goods in the warehouse. Credit: australiabusinessblog / Matt Gast
Shortly after, Ms Whitford left for Australia and continued her career as a nurse in the prison system before starting the charity. It is one of several services reporting an increase in demand since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
According to a report by the state government’s statistician, domestic violence crimes rose 17 percent in Queensland last year.
“It’s very overwhelming for [people fleeing] so we’re trying to lighten that burden when they start over,” says Ms Whitford.
Furnishing a home costs about $5,000, even with donated items.
“But we are blessed with donations, on a daily basis. Some items are brand new. It’s amazing how the community is working together to help families in need.”
Among the charity’s 150 registered volunteers in South East Queensland, NSW and Western Australia is Mary Page, 66, who left an abusive marriage with her three young children in the 1990s.
She had few possessions when she was later forced to rent a house.
“Because the children were so young, they had to leave all their belongings behind. It took a long time for us to go back and take everything we needed,” she says.
Mary Page volunteers at Friends with Dignity Credit: australiabusinessblog / Matt Gast
Ms. Page was one of the first to volunteer with Friends with Dignity and to date has helped furnish nearly 700 homes for people to get their lives back on track.
“It makes me feel like I’m doing something good for someone in dire need,” she says.
“Had there been such a service 30 years ago, it would have helped me a lot, especially since the kids were so young.”
“My heart goes out to them because I’ve been there and I know what it’s like.”
Mary Page and Manuela Whitford. Credit: australiabusinessblog / Matt Gast
The National Women’s Safety Alliance’s 2022 survey found that nine out of 10 domestic, familial and sexual violence primary care services have reported an increase in abuse since the start of the pandemic.
Mary also volunteers at a women’s shelter south of Brisbane and sees the growing need first hand.
“Every time I go to the shelter, there are more women and children,” she says.
“It’s always full and we have to turn people away because there’s no more room.”
Hayley Foster, the CEO of Full Stop Australia, says it is a national crisis.
“In this country, one woman a week is murdered at the hands of a partner or ex-partner,” she says.
“This situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic, so that the United Nations High Commissioner has called it a ‘shadow pandemic’.
“We have a lot of work to do.”
In this country, one woman a week is murdered at the hands of a partner or ex-partner.
Hayley Foster, CEO of Full Stop Australia
Australia’s current housing crisis is part of the problem.
“Many of the rental properties are not up to my standard and with the recent rainfall many are suffering from mould,” says Ms Whitford.
“But the demand for housing is so great and people are desperate to leave refuges, they will take everything they can get.
“So we’re doing our best to make sure it looks as good as possible so they can move in.”
One of the homes that Friends with Dignity has decorated Credit: Delivered Manuela Whitford
Ms Foster says domestic violence is widespread.
“First Nations people and people with disabilities are at greater risk.
“People who speak a language other than English or who are in a precarious visa situation, or someone who is in a lesser position of power.”
We can all play a role in supporting survivors and helping end domestic violence, she says.
“You can donate to a charity that does this work, you can stand up and speak out, and just be there to support people and point them to available services.”
Manuela Whitford is grateful for the donations. Credit: australiabusinessblog / Matt Gast
Services that help people fleeing abuse say a range of household items is needed.
“If you have a spare bed, donate it instead of throwing it in the landfill for people who need it and can use it,” Manuela says.
Surviving Ms. Page has this advice for anyone at risk: “Get out. No matter how hard it is and how scared they are, they have to get out.”
Friends with Dignity offers scholarships to children ages 5 to 17 who have experienced domestic and family violence. Registrations close on July 15.
If you or someone you know is affected by family and domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit † In an emergency, call 000.
The Men’s Referral Service provides advice to men about domestic violence and can be reached on 1300 766 491.