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Children is where I draw the line

The noise hits me like a brick wall when I walk into the room. The after-school program is at full speed already. Children are running around and little voices are bouncing off the yellow walls.

“Am I doing it right?”

“I need help!”

And then a girl who might be ten years old looks straight at me, eyebrows raised: “And who are you?”

After School Matters

“After School Matters” is a United Way initiative that brings free programming to neighborhoods that don’t offer a lot of activities for kids to be engaged in. A number of local agencies are involved in facilitating these programs, including the YW. While our Skills Development Team brings workshops to schools all throughout the region all week, After School Matters is a great way for our social workers to support kids once they are back in their own environment, away from the school context.

A stream of water beads is rolling off the table at the end of the room like a colourful waterfall. Myles, who I learn is a regular at the program, sports a cheeky grin that spreads all over his face. He sits away from the other kids because Myles, I learn this too, has a mind of his own.

“Jenna is taking all the beads!!!” A small girl with beautiful big, brown eyes and an even bigger voice is outraged at her friend’s sins and is making sure everybody in the room knows about it. Noella, one of our Skills Development Workers, gives a faint smile and tries to mediate. Today, the kids are making stress balls. The boys are sitting at their own table because who wants to sit with the girls when you’re ten years old! They’re trying hard to look too cool for the arts and crafts but when they don’t feel watched, I see them gently funneling the beads into the plastic bottle and blowing up the balloon with great care to get it to just the right size before pouring the beads into it.

Myles has somehow gotten a hold of the scissors and is cutting his plastic bottle in half.

“Stressed Neighbourhoods”

These kids live in what we call a “stressed neighbourhood”. I’m not a fan of labels but what I think it is trying to describe is that this neighbourhood is not the kind that has basketball and hockey nets in every driveway, along with a truck and an SUV. The townhouses are small and I have no doubt that if one family decides to crank up the tunes while doing the dishes, their neighbours will know it. It’s a neighbourhood that might be “stressed” but also one where kids create a special bond, speak their own language and whether by choice or not, are independent in a way I barely see in other kids their age.

My thoughts get interrupted when Myles walks past me making a big point of a) not looking me in the eye and b) obnoxiously chewing on something. I watch him stride through the room to the garbage bin where he spits out the balloon he has been chewing on. He is trying to look indifferent, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary to see here, but he doesn’t quite manage to cover up the smirk when he sees the shock on my face.

Turns out, kids are just kids

When I decided to check out what this After School Matters program was all about, I was nervous. I don’t know what I was expecting when I heard “stressed neighbourhood” – an eight-year old boy pointing a gun at me? A little girl smoking a joint? Whatever it was, it dissipated the second I walked into that crazy loud and busy room and reality hit me as hard as the sound of their high-pitched voices: they’re just kids.

Maybe they’re a bit louder than the average kid their age because their families tend to be bigger. Maybe they have a bit more “sass” than other kids, maybe their eyes look like they’re carrying more than they should but then again, maybe that is just what I think I am supposed to see rather than what I do see.

Their problem is not that they are growing up in that particular neighbourhood.

What their problem is is that more than half of the kids in the room will be discriminated against all throughout their lives simply because of the colour of their skin. Their problem is that half of the kids in the room are going to have to work that much harder to get that promotion when they grow up, simply because they are girls. Myles is a black boy with a learning disability. Are we ready to give him equal opportunity? All of their barriers will double and triple if a single kid in that room decides to not identify with their gender or if they make choices around their sexuality that society doesn’t agree with. Their problem is that in only a few years, we will stop caring because they won’t be small and cute anymore.

When Noella asked Jenna what she wanted for Christmas at the end of last year, she answered: “That my daddy will stop drinking.”

Are we still going to be there for Jenna in five years? When perhaps daddy’s drinking becomes too much to bear and she decides to leave? Will we ask her then how she got here or will we just see another lazy, dirty homeless person playing the guitar outside the Farmer’s Market?

Let’s do better.

When I tell people where I work, I can physically feel some of my friends and family members suppressing the want and need to judge the women and families we serve.

That has to stop.

And I include myself in this because challenging our own bias is an on-going, never-ending journey, for you, and for myself.

When the program comes to an end, another unthinkable thing happens: the kids just pack up and go home! No parent is waiting in their car, or texting or calling, they just head out in little groups and go back to their lives. As for myself, I can’t help but think of my own kids on my drive home. They have not earned to be better off. I don’t work harder or try harder than Jenna’s dad. I just happen to not be struggling with addiction. At least not today.

Childrens’ homelessness does not happen in a vaccuum. Children are homeless because parents are homeless. As we are striving to become a compassionate city, a compassionate Niagara, we have to care about everyone, regardless of colour, age, appearances. I am not perfect and neither are you, so my request is simple. Let’s just try. One judgement at a time. Let’s try harder, care more, assume less. If we want kids to have a home, we need to start with their parents.

Franziska Emslie
Community and Public Relations at the YWCA Niagara Region

I participate in Coldest Night of the Year because we need the awareness.

When the volunteer opportunity to help out at West Niagara Affordable Housing was first presented at her parish around five years ago, Lee knew she had found the perfect fit. “I liked the concept and what the program was all about. West Niagara Affordable Housing (WNAH), or GAHP at the time, is more than a band-aid solution. It helps people to really get back to a place of independence. That idea appealed to me.” So Lee got in touch and has been helping our team out ever since. She helps the Transitional Housing Workers with their filing, answers phone calls and provides any other administrative support that might be needed.

“It could be anybody.”

When she heard that the YW was going to bring Coldest Night of the Year to Grimsby, back in 2016, to raise funds for the program she had been volunteering for, she was thrilled and knew she had to get involved. “I think it is so important to bring people the awareness. To let them know it is not just people you see in the streets but that it could be anybody. People sometimes think that there is no homelessness in West Niagara but there is! I see it first-hand through my volunteer work. I think Coldest Night of the Year is a great event to open people’s eyes to some of the issues, as volunteering has done for me.” Lee has volunteered at the registration desk at the event and her entire parish is involved as well. “You can help others and have fun at the same time, it’s perfect!” When asked why someone should get involved with Coldest Night of the Year, Lee’s answer is simple: “The more people walk and the more people donate, the more we will bring the awareness to the forefront, and that’s where real change can begin.”

To walk with us or to donate to the event, please visit www.cnoy.org/westniagara!

Thanks for all you do, Lee!

Macie

When Macie refused to enter into an arranged marriage, her family cut her off.

Macie first came to Canada as an international student. She was fortunate to have a family back home in Africa that was able to provide her with the means needed to study towards her degree in Hospitality and Tourism at Niagara College. Macie enjoyed her course and getting to know Canadians and their culture. About six months into her studies, however, she got the call from her family that changed her life. They expected Macie to return home to enter a marriage that had been arranged for her. A marriage to a stranger who is in his 50s. Macie is 20 years old.

“I have never felt this scared in my life,” said Macie when she came to the YW on a cool morning in April. She had begged and pleaded with her family, trying to make them understand that she wanted more of life than to be a wife to a stranger and to bare his children. Her family was shocked and felt ashamed by their daughter’s refusal. They cut off all of Macie’s support, their way of trying to force her to come back to Africa. Over night, life became a battle of survival.


Macie felt alone and scared and lost. She began to slip into depression.

Macie applied for refugee status which, thankfully, she was granted. While that took one worry away, it still left her forced to drop out of school. Macie started to work a minimum wage job that turned into a part-time job in the colder winter months. It was not enough to make ends meet. She was no longer able to afford her accommodation. Forced to move, she rented a room she found online. Macie felt alone and scared and lost. She began to slip into depression.

Finally, thanks to a friend at work, Macie learned about the YW and the many programs we offer and she decided to apply. She entered the Off-Site Transitional Housing program in June of 2018. During her time in the program Macie has continued to work and support herself by taking as many hours as possible at work. Macie signed up as a volunteer for as many organizations as she was able to fit into her schedule. She has applied and been granted permanent residence in Canada. And her biggest joy of all, thanks to all of her hard work and drive, she will be starting back to her post-secondary education in September 2019. The strides she has made within only a few months of being in the program are nothing short of amazing. “I am so grateful for the support of the YW and my incredible worker. With the YW in my corner, I can overcome anything. I can’t wait to see what my next six months in the program will bring.”

Paige’s Journey

I didn’t want to spend another Christmas drugged with some stranger choosing what happened to me. I couldn’t do it again. Not knowing Niagara well, I was lucky one of the girls had slipped me a YW card. “If you can make it, they can help you.”

It was December 3rd. That’s the day I finally made it to the YW’s emergency shelter. I was terrified. I knew I had to ask for help if I wanted to live past 25. I’d been trying to get out of that horrible hotel room for months and months. It smelled like sweat, cheap perfume, and tears. Every time I tried, they stopped me. They hurt me. So I stayed.

The shelter immediately felt warm for my shivering, barely-clothed body. My sad eyes looking around for comfort landed on the women’s advocate. It didn’t take long before I’d told her almost everything. My worst times. How at 16 years-old, I had been hanging out with this guy, Derek, who was so good to me. He took care of me. Bought me things. He was my escape from my abusive step-father. I was going to meet Derek at the park, that’s where we always met. He smiled at me and I was excited. Seconds later I was being shoved into a trunk in Timmins and wound up in Niagara Falls. It didn’t take long before I was forced into sex work, addicted to drugs, emotionally and physically abused. I had almost given up.

It took everything I had but I made it to the YW. I was safe. I spent this year living in the emergency shelter’s on-site transitional housing. With the support of the advocates, I have been able to finish school. They provided me with an addictions worker to help me get through the withdrawal and stay sober. The best gift this year is that I get to move into the YW’s supported transitional housing, I can’t wait! This year, I get to spend Christmas in my own apartment still surrounded by YW supports and women who care about me. It hasn’t been the easiest year in the shelter, but my worst days are behind me and that wouldn’t have happened without you.

I am writing to you because I am not the only one. I just got lucky. There are other girls out there, who are lost and scared and they need YOU.
This holiday season, please consider making a donation to the YWCA Niagara Region.

 

Every little bit helps. The services they provide all throughout the region save lives.
I know they saved mine.

I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for you and your support.

Yours, forever grateful to the YW – and donors like you,

Paige

Supporting Human Trafficking Victims

Over the course of our 90 years in Niagara, it has always been at the heart of our work to stay close to the needs of the community. They have changed over the decades from the need for recreational opportunities for women to supporting Canada’s efforts during World War II to helping women find employment. One of the challenges Niagara is facing today is an ever-growing industry of human trafficking.

Since we first started running our Sex Trade On My Terms program, more and more women have shared with our Outreach Workers that they have experienced exploitation.
Thanks to your advocacy and support, we have been able to educate the community and other service providers. Under the leadership of our Program Manager Krystal Snider, we developed a region-wide Emergency Response Protocol. Our support for survivors does not end there. Krystal has been training local firefighters and police officers to help them recognize signs of human trafficking. “The successes have been immediate,” explains Krystal. “Last week, we got a call from a firefighter within days of the training we provided. They were able to identify and report a suspicious motel room.”

Thank you for your continued support for our anti-human trafficking work.
Thanks to your donations and advocacy, we are able to provide education to the community and find solutions together.

Who Gets Mentored?

Recently, a good friend told me of a mentoring experience her daughter had at work. She’s a young lawyer in her first year at a big-city firm. When she returned from her post-articling break, she and some female colleagues were sat down for an informal meeting with some senior female lawyers. The first item on the agenda was a question: “so, what’s your debt?” As I was told this, I thought “now that’s direct.” But also important and thoughtful. The mentors were attempting to make a bridge and value the real-life situation of their newer colleagues who had come through eight years of schooling—many of them with debts ranging from the price of a new car to the price of a new condo.  They listened to them narrate their tales of navigation—some had families to support, others had families that supported them—and then offered suggestions, advice, and resources based on their own experience and knowledge of handling the first years out of law school.

Uncritical and Critical Mentoring

I was impressed by this story of women who, with knowledge of how it was for them—what supports were there, and what was missing—had stepped up to help their sisters with their experience. I was also a little covetous of the guidance. I have no idea if this is a common thing amongst women lawyers, but if it is I’d say it’s a good model. I wished that I had that sort of aid and nourishment when I started my career—or even throughout it. I don’t think I even understood what mentoring was when I was new to the regular work world. I had supportive co-workers, and even occasionally some who went the extra mile or gave (mostly unsolicited) advice. In one job, one of my older colleagues was selected to pull me aside and advise me on how best to deal with the boss’s drinking problem. I don’t think you could call it a mentorship, but it was helpful. When I mentioned advice here, I said “mostly unsolicited” because for most of my life, I didn’t even know I could ask for career or work life guidance. And I still feel that way, despite my age (don’t ask), and having navigated through different aspects of my career. I mean, I think for most of my life I saw mentoring as an exercise of the privileged over their younger (or less privileged) selves. To be honest, I still think that is what uncritical mentoring is: a one-way street where people who possess knowledge and the means set themselves up as pseudo TED talkers with clever words and deeds that gratify themselves, instead of the listeners.

Learning From the Mentored

Over the past decade, I’ve taken to following the teachings and suggestions of the younger women in my life (and yeah, most are millennials). I don’t know if they could be called mentors outright, but they use the tools of critical mentoring. They are inventive, smart, and enthusiastic. They listen and provide a platform when possible. And they don’t assume that a query or a question means I am a complete dullard who needs to be schooled. They encourage intergenerational dialogue but don’t idol worship what an older person says just because they are older. Maybe it’s because many millennials see how tenuous work is, and how we all need to share resources, Or, perhaps it is because they understand power but are not interested in wielding it like a weapon. I get such constructive dialogue from younger people who have an interest in mutual benefit—even if that benefit isn’t readily quantifiable.

Finding Your Place

When I was forced to think of words that describe my “work” self, I often got stuck on things like amenable, adaptable and accommodating.

Those words, in my opinion, can make one feel as if they are thought of as weak, malleable, controllable.

 When I first started my volunteer front desk position at the YW it wasn’t out of a burning desire to help, or to be a part of the bigger picture. I wasn’t passionate about the organization because in truth I really had no idea what the organization was about. I came and sat my first shift at the front desk because I was floundering. I was lost. I was in need of something to focus on aside from the mess I was in as a single mom who had just been fired from her job.

Passion… came later.

Being amenable

I wasn’t satisfied just sitting there answering phones when I could see so many staff run off their feet trying to get their days work accomplished. And so, I made myself amenable to them, offering any sort of assistance they could use. I looked around the space I was in, and saw that the one thing my perfectionism and OCD had going for me, I could use here. When I was offered a part-time front desk position, I leapt at the chance.

Being adaptable

In an organization this size, there are often gaps that need to be filled- quickly. Over the years, I found myself needing to be adaptable to all those changes, and often found myself in new positions trying to fill a void. I just felt this need and drive to mold myself to the place they needed me to be at the time. Though to be sure— I struggled with this. As my positions changed, as my work load increased because I was so accommodating I kept asking myself… is this what you want?? Are you happy?

Finding passion

I have never been a “career” oriented person, nor did I have an insatiable drive to run myself up the chain of command and be a “leader”. I was so much happier sitting on the sidelines—surviving, but with peace of mind. I desperately wanted to keep a place for myself within the organization as by then, through all the changes, the ups and downs, watching friends and even family go, I had found a passion for the work the organization was doing even though I hadn’t quite yet found a passion for what I was doing.

My professional journey with the YW has to date been over 10 years. I have watched this organization stand amendable, adaptable and accommodating to our community in so many different ways. As an organization we have changed and grown with the needs in this community for over 90 years, becoming more fluid, more elastic over time to address the considerable amount of need. We are constantly stretching at the seams, but yet we stay resilient because we have the power of so many dedicated amenable, adaptable and accommodating people driving for change, for a just and equitable future.

I was recently offered a position that I leapt at again. This time, with excitement and certainty that this was my place. One that empowered me. This is what I want. This is what makes me happy. I am now in a position that I can own and evolve with—that I can offer the piece of myself that is truly passionate.

As the YW is entering into yet another new strategic plan, with a re-vamped Mission, Vision and Values that I am incredibly proud to have been a part of, I find myself incredibly invigorated and excited about the new breath that is about to be blown into our organization. As I look back over my journey, I am able to be proud of those “work-self“ words and take ownership of them as I have come to realize that I stand amenable because I am determined. I stand adaptable because I am strong. And I stand accommodating because I am passionate about what we do.

Surviving the Storm: Representing the Journey

An exciting new partnership initiative has taken place between Rodman Hall Art Centre and YWCA Niagara Region. Guests of the YWCA Niagara Region were invited to work with artist Leona Skye to create a piece of art that represents their individual journeys. A celebration of the final product took place July 25th, 2018, at the YWCA’s Culp St. Emergency Shelter.

“The painting  was created by an amazing group of women,” says YWCA Skills Development Worker Noella Iradukunda, “They worked together to create a beautiful art piece that promotes the journey that they have been through.”

The piece, titled Surviving the Storm, immediately captures the eye when viewed for the first time. A flurry of colour and shapes, it’s immediately clear to the viewer that a considerable amount of thought and emotion went into the painting. One of the artists describes how they were each given a piece of the canvas to represent the journey that has brought them to where they are today. Words like “Empower”,  “Heal”,  “Freedom” and “Justice” stretch across the canvas, capturing the essence of the women’s emotional journeys and their feelings now that they are at the YWCA.

The guests of the YWCA, along with Elizabeth Chitty, Program Officer of the Rodman Hall Art Centre, and artist Leona Skye, gathered around the painting to sign their names on their work. There was a noticeable sense of pride in the room as the women looked upon what they had created. The artwork can be seen in the front foyer of the Culp St. Shelter.

When Reality Hits – No Fixed Address

In 2016, YW Staff Franziska shared her experience at No Fixed Address with us. Our signature fundraiser is coming up again on June 8/9 at General Motors.

Please consider participating. Please consider donating.

More than 700 women stayed in our shelters last year, and almost 200 children.

Help today!

I can feel raindrops on my face. It could be 2am or 4am – I have no idea and, frankly, I don’t care. What I do know is that it is the middle of the night. The sky is dark and the parking lot is surrounded by an orange glow from the street lights all around. It looks dark and grey and orange all at once outside of my window. It’s raining again. Great. I scramble to find the car keys, turn the ignition and a high “ding ding” sound comes from the car – probably because it picks up on me not being buckled in. Thanks to the turned key, I can finally close the window. I can see my husband stirring in the backseat to do the same. We shoot each other a tired look and share a brief, slightly desperate smile that says “oh well, this night will have to be over eventually.” Mark is not an overly tall guy, but he looks so very uncomfortable rolled up on the backseat like that. I glance over to our other car and notice that the kids still have their windows open. My tired brain tries to decide what would be worse: for them to be woken up by me turning the key to close the windows, or for them to be rained on. With a deep sigh, I decide that it probably wouldn’t be healthy for them to lie in wet sleeping bags, so I grab the keys, get out into the rain and close their windows. As I get back into our car with the intention of going back to sleep, the humidity is already unbearable. But for now, it is raining too hard and the windows will need to stay closed.
It is only one night, morning will come soon enough, and I will just have to suck it up, deal with it.

One thing we all have in common is that we will be going home in the morning.

I wonder what the other 140 participants around me might be doing or thinking right now. There are always those who can’t catch a wink of sleep and those who sleep like a baby all night long. But most of us are somewhere in between. Regardless of which category you fall under, one thing we all have in common is that we will be going home in the morning.
Since 2012, No Fixed Address  has raised more than $300,000 for those women and families for whom not having a home is the harsh reality – every single day. It allows the YW to provide nutritious food, safe shelter and Skills Development programming to hundreds of women and families. Every dollar raised is part of the women’s, men’s and children’s path back to independence and self-sufficiency. We thank all of the participants, the donors who support them, the sponsors and the volunteers who help us to once again raise much needed funds and awareness for hidden homelessness in Niagara.

For my family and I, the uncomfortable night came and went quickly and was soon forgotten after a swim in the pool and a good night’s sleep in our beds. The horror, however, that came over me at the mere thought of what it must be like to truly have to live like this, will stay with me forever. The thought of not having a home but only a car to go back to, or a friend’s couch, or a motel room, the thought of being constantly scared and worried and stressed while still doing the best you can to make your kids feel safe and happy in spite of it all… that thought will fuel me and ignite me because we cannot and must not stop until there is not a single woman, man or child left who has to go through this here in Niagara, in our own backyards.

Sponsor Franziska’s team Nevertheless, She Persisted or find a participant near you!

#VolunteerTalk – Slavica

1) What motivated you to become a volunteer or supporter of YWCA Niagara Region, and what does your involvement look like?

My motivation to become a volunteer at the YWCA came from Kaitlyn who had introduced me to the YW during my first year at Brock. The YW was promoting their annual Women’s Leadership Summit and being in the Women’s and Gender Studies department at Brock, I thought the event was interesting and related to my field of study. When I first started, I only contributed to the blog posts but because one of the credits I needed to graduate was a Practicum course that required me to have 100 hours of volunteering, I decided to become more involved with the YW than I had previously done.

As of right now I help out the ladies upstairs with any jobs they need me to do. Most of the time it tends to be research based, particularly, finding contact information on companies in the local community who might sponsor or participate in events the YW is hosting and any other odd jobs.  I also spend my Saturdays helping the kitchen staff make lunch, I’m usually on baking duty which I have discovered I have a great passion for and look forward to doing every week.

2) This year’s theme for National Volunteer Week is “Celebrate the Value of Volunteering – building confidence, competence, connections, and community”. What value has volunteering brought to your life? Have you experienced any of these “4 Cs”?

I definitely feel like I have developed connections within the organization with all the various people who work at the YW which has reached over into me helping my community, like working on the chili cook-off part of West Niagara’s Coldest Night of the Year Event. I feel like the work I do, however little, is really valuable to them and knowing that I am helping my community, makes me look forward to coming to work each day.

3) How do you make time for volunteering, and do you have any tips for those who are starting their own volunteer journey?

Since I’m a student, I choose the hours and the times I volunteer based on my school schedule and any other responsibilities I may have. I usually volunteer twice a week, a couple hours each day.

I suggest doing something you’re comfortable doing. I wasn’t comfortable working in the front desk because I felt like that was a lot of responsibility and answering phones causes me major anxiety so I decided to do everything except that instead. Helping out in the kitchen, working on the blog, volunteering at events, etc.

4) Are there any misconceptions about volunteering that you would like to debunk?

The biggest misconception I think people have is they don’t understand the long term value of volunteering for themselves and the community. Most people do it for the short term and that’s great but non-profits function largely because they have volunteers. I haven’t done really big jobs in my time here, but I know that the help I provide is valued and that the result is that my small actions have somehow contributed to making the lives of the people who use YWCA’s services better.

5) What experience, memory, or lesson from being part of YWCA Niagara Region has made the most impact on you?

I don’t have one particular lesson or memory that has been impactful to me because I feel like the whole experience in general has changed my life for the better. I feel like a happier person, knowing what I do here matters and is valued.

6) What would you like to see happen over the next 90 years of YWCA Niagara Region?

To represent change and growth for the next 90 years, I think the organization as a whole, not just specifically Niagara, should undergo a name change to represent the diversity of people that they help.