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!

After the Dust Settles

We thank our newest blogger, who wants to remain anonymous at this time, for sharing this beautiful blog post with our readers! Your strength and courage is an inspiration to all of us.

It’s January 2019. Two years ago, January 2017, I was pregnant with my daughter, awaiting her arrival with my then partner. Within these 2 years I have gone through some very rapid transformations. From woman to mother to single mother. From postpartum depression to domestic violence to “just enjoying life” so to speak. My daughter has undergone many transformations too. From babyhood to toddlerhood. Every day I watch her and it gives me new joy and hope.


I feel strange that I now stand here with a new paint brush and a blank canvas.

It dawned on me the other day that now I am in my own territory. Completely on my own. Through the violence from her father, police interruptions and a family court case… my daughter and I made it out! And it made me a better person in the end. I write this now, as a reflection. Sitting with the unknown future. Sitting with past attitudes and outlooks. I feel strange that I now stand here with a new paint brush and a blank canvas. It’s foreign to not have specific stress which looms in the background. I am more than pleased to have this peaceful beginning.


There is light at the end of that dark and scary tunnel.

After much therapy and self love, I was able to heal. Connecting with my community, friends and family. It’s really important to reconnect with oneself after ending an abusive relationship. Making my art, having art shows, jogging, meditation and yoga helped me ground myself through all the stressy mess.

For anyone going through a tough time, I get it. There is light at the end of that dark and scary tunnel. Believe in your strength.

To anyone who has been abused, in any way, always remember that it’s not you. It’s a reflection of how low this person feels to make sure they put you down. It’s a reflection of their own hurt. Hurt people, hurt people. Don’t let them dim your light🌟

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.

Lessons I Learned From My Toddler

As I was sitting next to my toddler’s bed the other night, waiting for her to decide that she is done playing with my hair and ready to go to sleep, I realized that for someone who is not even two yet, there are a lot of things she has to teach. I am not talking about the obvious ones that children at any age will teach you:

It’s not diamonds, it’s coffee that is a girl’s best friend.

Sleep is overrated.

Your house will never be clean again. Deal with it.

The lessons I am talking about are the kinds of lessons you only start thinking about when you’re trapped in a dark room with nothing to do but wait for your child to go to sleep. I’m talking about the deep stuff.

1. Celebrate Your Successes

“I peed in the potty!!!” Both my husband and I rush up the stairs, opening the champagne bottle on our way, confetti in hand, and there she is, beaming as if the Wiggles had entered the building. “I peed in the potty,” she continues to yell and proudly points to the tiny puddle in her Froggy Potty. We are now jumping up and down in excitement, we yell down to our only semi-interested teenager to share the good news, we exchange high fives and praises. “SHE PEED IN THE POTTY!!!! Good job, sweetie, that’s amazing! Oh my gosh, you are going to help us empty the potty and flush, too? What a good helper!” My daughter will probably still need months until she’s actually housebroken. Until then, we will celebrate each and every day, about three times a day.

Because of this, on occasion, when I come out of the washroom, she waits outside the door for me (creepy, right!) and exclaims to everyone else in the house: “Mommy peed in the potty!!” “Yes I did, baby-girl! High five!”

So my question is: when and why do we stop doing that? What happens from here to there? Even with our teenagers the best I can manage most of the time is something along the lines of: “Oh, so you do know where the dishwasher is, good news!”

This year’s Niagara Leadership Summit for Women was all about owning our strengths. My toddler reminds me every day that we probably started out that way; that most or at least some of us started out with someone cheering us on. We, too, used to stand tall, proud of every accomplishment, no matter how small. If we all stayed a little bit more in that mindset of both, owning our own strengths and celebrating those of the people around us, I am convinced this world would be a better place.

2. No Means No

“Do you want some milk, sweetie?” “No.” It’s 7:30pm, this is what is next in her night routine. At around this time, every day, she has her milk. She loves it. “Mom has some warm milk for you, would you like some?” “No, Mama.” She is just saying ‘no’ because that’s the first thing they learn when they move from the infant to the toddler room, the word NO becomes a tool, a weapon, the ultimate crisis communication plan. Surely, she’s just saying it to be funny. “Here is your milk, sweetheart,” I say, coming at her with her favourite evening beverage. Armageddon is what follows. And I don’t mean the Bruce Willis kind. She flings herself onto the ground, within seconds there is a screaming and kicking mess where there was a peaceful child only moments ago. “NOOOOOO! NO MILK!!!!!” It is dawning on me that she may not have been joking after all. That kid does not want milk.

When I go over those lovely moments in my head at the end of the day, I find myself asking again: When, and more importantly, WHY do we stop doing that? Why don’t I start kicking and screaming when the boss adds something to my already overflowing plate? When do we start making up excuses instead of yelling: “NO! I DON’T WANT TO GO OUT FOR DINNER TONIGHT, I WANT TO EAT ICE CREAM AND BINGE WATCH GREY’S ANATOMY.” What do we as parents, teachers, role models, faith communities, as society do to our children that might make this very same girl think one day that she can’t say no when her soccer coach corners her in the change room?

no means no

Take it from my toddler, no means no. It is not always easy, especially for us as women, but practice it. Get better at it, one NO at a time. No, I cannot attend this meeting today. No, I cannot contribute to the bake sale. No, I don’t want to watch Sharknado tonight. No, not tomorrow either. And please! Don’t make excuses, don’t feel like you have to offer an explanation. The story didn’t go: And then the toddler said “no, mommy, I am still very full from dinner, I would rather skip the milk tonight.” She said NO. Period.

3. Feel The Feels

When our toddler is angry, she gives it her all. When she did not want that milk, she did not try to be polite about it. She didn’t force it down to then complain to her older sister later about the time I forced her to drink the milk. She just unleashed the anger. In the same way, there is no holding her back in her excitement over jumping around in a puddle. When she is sad, she lets herself sob and cry until she can’t catch her breath anymore. When she is happy, she giggles and snorts and laughs without thinking twice about it. She doesn’t need mindfulness training, this is just how she came out. This is a human before a lifetime of being shushed and distracted and shaped into what we have decided is right and proper and appropriate. One of my favourite chapters of  the book Tuesdays With Morrie is the one where he speaks about emotions.

“Turn on the faucet. Wash yourself with the emotion. It won’t hurt you. It will only help. If you let the fear inside, if you pull it on like a familiar shirt, then you can say to yourself, “All right, it’s just fear, I don’t have to let it control me. I see it for what it is”.”

Be scared, be happy, be nervous, be sad… be what you please but be it all the way.

emotions

Franziska Emslie is our Community and Public Relations Coordinator

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.

Daisy

Daisy’s journey began when she entered the Court Street Transitional Housing Program, after what she describes as a long walk of feeling alone and faced with many hardships. She felt completely supported from the day she moved into the YW’s supported housing. “I finally was where I needed to be,” explains Daisy. Having her Transitional Housing Worker just down the stairs from her to access when she needed support, was a relief and gave her a feeling she had not felt in a long time -that of safety.

Skills Development

While Daisy stayed with us at our Court Street building, she loved participating in our Skills Development workshops. At a time of her life when she thought of herself as someone who had lost all of her skills, it meant the world to be in a group that was all about celebrating your own strengths and beauty and all that you have overcome.

Moving on to Off-Site

Daisy successfully completed the Court Street Transitional Housing program, and then transitioned into the Off-Site Transitional Housing Program. During her time in the Off-Site program, she felt empowered by her Support Worker, who never judged, and felt she was met where she was at. Her Support Worker was able to focus on her needs and help her reach her goals. This month, Daisy completed the transitional housing program and has moved on to a place that she can now call her home.

Aftercare

Our support does not end there. One of the things that often make all of the difference for the women and families we serve, is that we are still there for them even when they have left our programs. For Daisy, knowing that the support is still there for her if and when she needs it, gives her the strength and the trust she needs to continue on on her path.

Daisy’s message for you?

“I’m just one of many individuals in the Niagara Region who are in need of this type of Transitional Housing opportunity and supports. Please keep in mind when you pass someone in public that you just never know their story. The YWCA is an organization that goes above and beyond for the individuals they support, and I would like to encourage the community to take the time to get involved or to learn more about what the YWCA has to offer the community.” For Daisy, the YW is the place where she felt empowered and supported every step of the way.