Women helping women

by Sara Germanotta

For the past decade, Rosemère resident, Maria Larosa Napolitano, has been bringing a spark of joy to the lives of female victims of domestic violence.

Larosa Napolitano is the president and founder of Valora. It’s an organisation that collects much-needed funds for women living in shelters in Laval, Lanaudière and the Laurentians. The 50-year-old and her team are currently busy working on their second annual Valora Walk, which will take place in mid-September. It’s one of the many events the organization is hosting to help women in need. Their biggest fundraiser is the Valora Holiday Open House which happens right before Christmas. At last year’s event, hundreds of Rosemère residents braved the treacherous freezing rain to support Valora’s initiatives. Larosa Napolitano and her 16-member all-female committee—a tight-knit group of family and friends—raised more than $12,000 and collected 1,200 gifts for women living in shelters on Montreal’s North shore.

Larosa Napolitano started the initiative 10 years ago by opening her own home to family, friends and neighbours in an effort to unite the community in an act of gratitude. “I’ve known a few women who’ve experienced domestic violence and I wanted to show them that someone is always there to help, even in their darkest moments,” she explains. “Knowing all these great people in our community, I thought I would open my home and invite everyone to bring a little gift. It was the holidays and we are more than blessed. I wanted to reach out to those women who didn’t have anything to give to their kids because they had to leave their haven.”

Armed with a desire to do good and a lot of connections in the Rosemère community, Larosa Napolitano got on the phone and started spreading the word. One of the first people she called was her good friend, Sandy Morello. “When Maria called me with her idea for an open house, I said ‘let’s do it,’” recalls Morello. “We started it in her home; she prepared this beautiful table, this spread of food, and all her friends, people that respect her, came to her house with their arms full of gifts.”

Larosa Napolitano says more than 300 gifts were collected at that first Holiday Open House. She and a group of friends loaded the gifts into the trunks of their cars and drove to a local shelter. “I remember we were all crying as we delivered the gifts,” says Morello. “We had no idea what to expect when we walked into the shelter. The women were so surprised and so very grateful.”

Larosa Napolitano’s annual Open House has gotten bigger and bigger over the years, now collecting holiday gifts and funds for 11 local women’s shelters. The event provides a flicker of much-needed hope to women who find themselves in very desperate situations. 

Valora committee-member, Giovanna Di Biase, has seen firsthand the devastation that domestic violence leaves in its wake. Di Biase is a sergeant in the Laval police department. “I’ve responded to hundreds of calls regarding domestic violence and they’re the ones that have had the biggest impact on me as a police officer. It’s so painful to see women, who are so very nurturing and very forgiving, in these situations. Sometimes we are able to get them out and other times we’ll be called back again and again. There are times we lose some.”

According to a recent Statistics Canada report, the most common type of violent crime experienced by women is perpetrated by an intimate partner. Di Biase says the awareness raised by organizations such as Valora is having more than just a monetary impact on female victims of domestic abuse; following their 2017 Holiday Open House, Rosemère mayor, Eric Westram, invited Larosa Napolitano and her team to City Hall as the municipality became one of the first in the province to establish a zero tolerance policy for violence against women. “In situations of domestic abuse, often times when we get there, everything is calm and they say everything is ok and our hands are tied, we can’t go any further,” explains Di Biase. “This zero tolerance policy gives police officers greater authority to take action and stay there and ask questions.” Larosa Napolitano and her team are now working on expanding the good work they do.