Tag Archives: Sami-Jo

A Year to Transform Margaret – A Success Story

rock bottomHow much time do you think it would take to get your life in order when it’s brought you to a place you never imagined you’d be?

This varies from person to person depending on their commitment to change and Margaret exhibited unmatched drive from the very beginning.

As aking-st_1-247x300 women’s Advocate within the YWCA Emergency Homeless Shelter, I also enjoy the privilege of being a Case Manager to women within our On-site Transitional Housing Program.  The On-site program enables women to stay within a wing of the Shelter for up to a year, affording them the gift of time to figure out what they want from life and how to get there. Not every On-site client stays a full year, but thankfully Margaret has, and her presence has awarded me the opportunity to witness her transformation.

When asked to showcase a success story for the YWCA blog, Margaret came to mind immediately and she happily agreed to share her story in hopes that others may understand that hitting your rock bottom doesn’t mean you need to stay there. Every person has a history that shapes their present, but Margaret never anticipated the spiraling events that brought her to the YWCA.

After losing his high-ranking position, Margaret’s partner’s alcoholism turned volatile. The relationship became toxic and she found herself the victim of frequent abuse, trapped within a dangerous cycle that she felt had no escape. The abuse escalated to the point where Margaret became the victim of attempted marital rape.  This was Margaret’s defining moment.  She had had enough, fought back with everything she had, and refused to stop there. Margaret found her courage and took her fight to the courts. A guilty verdict punctuated her fight with vindication, but her struggle had only begun as the memory of damage done could not be erased with the fall of a gavel.

One of Margaret's favorites
One of Margaret’s favorites also saved on her phone

In her attempts to find reprieve from her pain, Margaret found herself drinking to excess to cope with her life, a decision that quickly evolved into losing everything she held dear- of greatest importance, the trust of her family.

Her spiral continued as documented by a photo of a car crash she has saved on her phone that serves as a reminder of how bad things got before experiencing her breaking point.  Checking herself into the Women’s Detox Center in St. Catharines, she found personal security that had been stripped away by her ex.  Her insecurities had left her fearful of her surroundings, fearful to venture outdoors on her own, and fearful of being in the presence of men.  Detox granted her a sanctuary and sobriety, giving her time to  center herself and re-evaluate her life- where she was, how she got there, and most importantly how could she move on from there.

Leaving behind her old life meant starting fresh.  Without the trust of her family, Margaret bravely set out to navigate her own journey on the road toward independence.  Coming to the YWCA Women’s Shelter was no easy task, but moving on meant leaving a home that held too many memories of a lifestyle best left behind.  Margaret faced her fear of strangers as she joined the other guests at the Shelter, unsure if she could even trust the Women’s Advocates.

In a perpetual forward motion, Margaret followed through with referrals to resources that set her on a different path. Connecting with CASON (Community Addiction Support Services of Niagara) Margaret was given a treatment date for the Newport Treatment Centre (which also assists men)  in Port Colborne and for 18 days focused on nothing but herself and her addiction.  Again, this was another change that triggered great anxiety, but not enough to stop Margaret from doing what needed to get done.

However, another issue contributing to her anxiety, was not having a home to return to once treatment was complete.  After witnessing her strides in making it to the Shelter and actively participating in her recovery, I spoke with Margaret about the YWCA’s On-site Transitional Housing Program.  I explained the process and expressed how Margaret would be a perfect fit.  Elated to have “home” covered, Margaret proceeded to Newport and returned after completing the program with new knowledge in her tool belt.

Over the past year I have watched Margaret, in awe of her fortitude to prevail in times when others may have thrown their hands up and quit.  At no point did I ever hear Margaret express words of quitting.  Was she terrified?  Absolutely.  But not once would she accept anything less than looking forward, setting goals that she pursued with genuine fervor.  Every new challenge that nudged her outside her comfort zone was met with a level chin, though sometimes it trembled from anxious anticipation of the scary unknown.

“Forgive yourself, be patient in your healing, appreciate the help that is offered to you, know that you’re worth a new beginning, and share what you can.” – Words of advice from Margaret to those in need.

Margaret consistently attended the YW meetings, the Celebrate Recovery women’s group once a week, and  Alcoholics Anonymous meetings when she felt she needed the extra support. Eventually she was accepted into Design For a New Tomorrow to face the abuse issues that caused such pain in the first place. Margaret proved to be the definition of not only a success story, but a woman of inspiration.  She is who I think of when I consider how I would react if ever faced with hardships that challenged my every concept of existence.

Finding her way back to herself meant dealing with the shame and guilt of the damage she created against herself, as well as within her family, which included a brood of young grandchildren.  Fortunately, her family came full circle, supporting her throughout her journey and proud to see how far she has come. Having celebrated a year of sobriety on July 29, 2014, Margaret is transitioning out of the On-site program to move in with her loving family up north where she looks forward to enjoying being a grandma.

As bittersweet as it is to no longer be Margaret’s Case Worker, her success comes with its own fears. Leaving behind this stage of her life also means leaving the 24-hour On-site support received at the YWCA.  It also involves leaving behind peers that she bonded with while in the program, further illuminating fears of starting over in a new city with new resources, as well as, fears of being found by her ex.  However, her excitement refuses to be diminished.

blue-morpho-butterfly4

One analogy Margaret told me she lives by is the transformation of the butterfly. As a caterpillar you are born in dirt, live in dirt, and have no concept of the beautiful and freeing future awaiting you. This analogy fits Margaret perfectly. If you ventured into her room, you’d see all sorts of pictures and décor of colourful butterflies, interspersed among pictures of her family, and copies of every Tree Card, Animal card, Spirit of the Wheel card, and Angel card she has pulled from the deck at any given meeting, each a reminder to take pause and evaluate her current path.

At the age of 53, Margaret took a chance and entrusted a year of her life to us to assist her with transforming her life.  My only hope is for Margaret to be happy and continue on with her journey as she has from the beginning- impassioned to live physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy,  engulfed within the love of her supportive family.  Margaret, I will truly miss you and the talks we’ve had over the past year, but have faith you will thrive.

“There comes a time in your life, when you walk away from all the drama and the people who create it. You surround yourself with the people who make you laugh. Forget the bad and focus on the good. Love the people who treat you right, pray for the ones you don’t. Life is too short to be anything but happy. Falling down is part of life, getting back up is living.” – José N. Harris
(Another of Margaret’s favorites)

Images courtesy of Google Images and YWCA Niagara Region.

The #Hashtag Activism Debate

Many log on to their desired social media outlets daily and scroll their way through conversations with friends they may or may not know in the real world, watch a video of the cutest yawning sloth to grace the digital page, catch up on worldly events, clicking on whatever they feel the propensity to share. Especially when considering causes deemed important.

In an attempt to unravel my stance on the ‘#Cause craze’, I found myself riding the fence on its effectiveness. As with any social media trend (or social media itself, for that matter), two sides emerge in the argument on the use of #hashtags as a way to bring a voice to a cause; is it helpful, meaningful, or integral to a greater solution or  is it merely another outlet we use to disguise apathy with minimal effort?

When we see friends, family or even strangers sharing an #InsertCauseHere post we can’t help but ponder what we could do to mirror that support. Many perpetuate the cycle by holding up their own hand-scrolled signs, pictures or statuses as evident with causes such as #Movember, #NoMakeupSelfie, #BringBackOurGirls, or even #Kony2012.

In the end, what does all this hashtaging do for the cause, and what does it say about us as a society?

Woman's Liberation parade - Fifth Avenue New York 1971
Women’s Liberation parade – Fifth Avenue New York 1971

When you think of fighting for a cause, do you picture a person holding a sign from the comforts of their home office? When did the picture stray from organized protesting outside City Hall, burning bras in the streets, strapping oneself to bulldozers, or standing in the way of outfitted military personnel?

The problem is that over time, even the most radical physical attempts of protest can grow ineffectual, and a simple #hashtag share eliminates potential bodily harm and jail time. It’s agreed that to make a difference you must not simply fight, but fight smart; social media being a safe outlet to engage others in your struggle. If people don’t like you or what you have to say, you block them and be done with it.

With social media at your fingertips on a multitude of handheld options, most discover the daily news electronically instead of sitting down in front of their television or reading the newspaper.  As a bonus, the handheld option grants something previous options cannot; the privilege of a quick, opinionated response. Enjoy an online article, hit a “Like” button, and everyone and their 4th grade teacher knows about it, and now has the opportunity to do the same.

As a species we crave for others to unite in common opinion, and can now do so over a morning cup of coffee, surveying immeasurable minds globally not just those within our immediate surroundings.  Subjects more in-depth than your plan to bathe the dog, are woven within posts, force-feeding attention where an issue would otherwise be overlooked. Grave consequence follows when the population is uninformed on global issues, especially causes that only gain attention if public outcry creates a platform for protest. There is no way one could gain the support of officials, politicians, NGO’s, sponsors, or those with the power to make a difference and assist in your cause, if they don’t even know what it is. Hashtaging does the job of an advertising firm with no more effort than a finger-click by someone with zero training.

The original intent of #Activism is informing the masses, creating a dialogue, getting people in to see their doctors for present health issues, opening the eyes of those blind to growing environmental disasters, recruiting those in influential positions to assist in the red tape process, and reaching those with monetary capabilities to sponsor the cause.

And, at its most basic principal…

Creating Awareness!

In that, I think we can all agree that #Causes has succeeded.

Unfortunately, as with most modes of communication meant to embolden the populace, there is an ugly side to #Activism.

Most trends that compete for our attention are virtually harmless: bangles, toe socks, teen vampires, or mustache.  We decide which drives our current fancies and jump aboard. Unless the ship you jumped requires facial tattoos when your particular field of work strictly prohibits such self-expression, the consequences are limited to how much you care about what the world thinks of you. In that lies the issue, as causes are not the same as items that end up in next year’s yard sale.

#Activism has become trendy, something to measure or alter how others perceive your online persona. Eeek, I know. While #hashtags may have started with the intent to easily search for desired content (you can even take classes on how to #hashtag like a pro), it seems that the message often gets lost in the mix of a multitude of 5k runs and coloured bracelets.

Awareness ribbons/bracelet color chart
Awareness ribbons/bracelet color chart

Not everyone falls within this generalization, of course. I mean no disrespect to those who raise money, wear the bracelets, and do the run in the honour of themselves or loved ones who suffered through a disease.  Nor is it a bad thing to support or raise money using social media so non-profit organizations can better serve their community because many people are putting in arduous work to create change. Changing your status to #InsertCauseHere without knowing the particulars of the issue just to feel better for doing so, is not activism.  Holding a sign with #InsertCauseHere  to post yet another Photoshopped selfie, just to sit back and pray for a high “Like” count, again, is not activism. Wearing a cause bracelet for no more purpose than the colour complements your skin tone, is not activism no matter the afterglow you earn.

Without knowledge of the cause you share, you could even perpetuate shaming, injustice, or promote a matter that upon more consideration opposes your basic principals. And what about all the other causes – such as medical problems and political unrest that often get zero page time even though they affect many more people?  Ignorance is no excuse when information is so readily available.

For all those who share their #InsertCauseHere AFTER researching the true meaning behind the hashtag, including those who sign petitions, donate money (even pocket change), lobby NGO’s and government for progressive change, I applaud your tenacity for recognizing the true goal of #Activism.

In the end, no matter the side of the fence you fall #Causes has a purpose- to educate, create change, or fundraise on a global scale- there is an objective beyond the causal mouse-click or photo share. Before you become another one of the drones without true knowledge of the purpose behind your actions, make an effort at understanding and find a way to become involved in something more than the superficial show our social media followers expect.

True change requires action.

“A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.” – Henrik Ibsen”

Remembrance Day: Women War Machines

Everyone loves a man in uniform. Even married, you won’t see me turning down the chance at a double-take when a Canadian soldier walks down the street or comes across the screen of the TV. Besides the obvious yummy and salacious reasons, I drool because the uniform represents a set of appealing principals including courage and self-sacrifice that should be gawked at and revered no matter the campaign that soldier fights for.

The stereotypical man in uniform is changing. More and more, those uniforms are worn on empowered shoulders of women fighting for our country in the same combat fatigues, toting the same gun and focused stare as the men beside them, but this was not always the way. Like in many other facets of life, women have been fighting for years for the chance to prove they can stay strong in the trenches with the “big boys” and lead on in victory regardless of their sex but only recently was this become a more common image in times of war.

Supporting roles are immeasurable when considering the alternative without them. Before World War 1, women were told their place was in the home with an affixed apron and dishpan hands. When times changed and men were drafted to the front lines, the loss of man power granted the preconceived “fairer sex” the opportunity to prove their capabilities surpassed universal gender roles.
Without the man of the house, how did the farming get done? Who worked the line of munitions factories? Women did. They were the conducting war machines behind the scenes making battle on the front lines possible. And not only did they lace up steel toes to forge ammunition shells for $9 a week, they donated their pots and pans and household items, including their hair curlers, to the factories to be recycled into scrap metal to create guns and military vehicles and made due with the bare necessities like rolled tissue to keep their hair perfectly curled while doing it.

On top of factory work, Nursing Sisters (women from religious organizations) and other women trained with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance to become nurses, some travelling overseas, 200 of them receiving medals for bravery as they risked their lives in field hospitals.

In times where men were gone, politics never stopped and with suffragist movements made by women like Margaret Gordon of Ontario in 1917, the fight for equal rights led to extreme measures of protest across train tracks and hunger strikes, all leading to the Wartime Election Act giving mothers, sisters, wives and wartime nurses the right to vote, paving the way for women in parliament by 1920.

All possible because women saw opportunity and refused to stand down when ordered.

When conflict brought Canada into World War 2, British Columbia started a Women’s Service Corp trained in auxiliary roles doing first aid, clerical and administrative duties as well as motor mechanics in factories. Ontario and other provinces created much of the same called The Women’s Volunteer Reserve Corps as well as an Auxiliary Territorial Service. Across Canada these women were purely volunteer and on their own time learned Morse code, signalling and map reading, infantry drill, arms drill and physical conditioning.

Joan Kennedy from BC was the driving force against Ottawa to include women when considering war needs and in 1941 the creation of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps had thousands of women in supportive roles like many had during WW1. Displaying their uniforms and insignia with the helmeted visage of Athena, the Goddess of War, they were brimming with pride yet still jilted their ranks never equalled that of men’s, they only received 2/3 the wages ($0.90 to men’s $1.30/day), and were not permitted to conduct guard duty or other roles deemed too hazardous for women.

After the army, the snowball effect took over and air force created the ‘Royal Canadian Air Force – Women’s Division’ where 17,000 women were not permitted to fly though served on flight decks with the slogan “We serve the men that fly”, and the Navy created the ‘Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Services’ where 7,000 women completed clerical tasks, were radar and coding techs on ships excluding submarine work and worked as cooks as well as nurses.

Women’s Institutes across the country created cookbooks outlining recipes that could be created with the limited rations each family were afforded, city women were encouraged to help out with the harvest of local farms, canning clubs canned fruits and vegetables to keep up with the demand, everyone pitching in to serve community even if serving with a gun at the heads of their enemy was impossible.

On the flipside, not everyone was overjoyed with the evolution of the face of war including female features and a drop in enrollment occurred when word went round that only “loose women” joined the forces. As much as the army advertised otherwise with famous colourful ads still circulated today, these judgements were not merely from men, but from traditionalist women as well who prevented their daughters from joining for fear of public scrutiny. Family or not, enough pushed on and refused to abide by standards that kept them tied down and away from fighting for their country and found a sense of belonging and solidarity.

When WW2 ended, approximately 570,000 women in industry and clerical positions from all women’s divisions of the Army, Air Force and Navy were disbanded. After all their hard work and sacrifice, once the nations need for their female driving force ended, women were returned to the home as day care units were no longer operated, even though many wanted to stay on when the war horse was put to rest.

Never ones to quit while ahead, women continued the fight and in the early 1980’s were allowed enrollment in military colleges and then won the battle when a law was passed that it was discriminatory to refuse women be in active duty. Over a period of 10 years, women were integrated into all facets of the military, it taking until 2003 when Master Seaman Colleen Beattie was the first women to serve in a submarine.

In classrooms of today the wars in Afghanistan are highlighted and for the first time in history within that campaign 310 women fought in combat roles such as Infantry, Field Artillery, Combat Engineers and Pilots, while 1350 held supportive combat roles. Some were even held as invaluable when entering countries exhibiting female oppression such as the Congo, Afghanistan and Iraq, so women of those regions can see the options given in free countries.

In the same breath, I feel it’s important to mention 26 year old, Captain Nichola Goddard (picture on left), a Forward Artillery Observer and the first female to die in front line military combat in a firefight in the Panjwaii district in Afghanistan. War is not pretty. No matter how you spin it, or the face that represents it, it’s bloody and negative and has plagued the human race for thousands of years, but war effects all people within those warring countries, not only the select burly men movies make big bucks on.


The whole point is choice. Not every girl grows up wanting to wear army boots and fatigues but for the ones who do, this dream would be impossible without the trailblazing of stubborn women refusing to be told they don’t have a choice due to flimsy arguments about inferior upper body strength, possible pregnancy, morale of predominately male units, and the mental rigors on the fragile female mind during the horrors of long standing battle.

This Remembrance Day when you donate change for a poppy, wear it proudly and remember all the people who sacrificed their lives for their country and safety of their families and the struggle of women who had to fight a war before they even stepped foot on the battlefield.

I invite you to please share with us the brave women in your lives who have in the past or are currently making those sacrifices in any role, in their family homes, community or deployed across the world and we will be sure to remember them as well.

On the YWCA’s behalf, please thank them for all they have done and all they are doing to continue the war for equality while servicing our country.

(Sources: www.historyarchive.whitetree.ca, www.warmuseum.ca, www.veterans.gc.ca, www.sistersinarms.ca, wwww. canada.com, www.news.nationalpost.com)

The Connections We Make

Shifts pass when your feet hardly touch the ground, you’re busy prioritizing 10 plates of needs and wants, in a Cirque Du Soleil worthy juggle above your head and you’re craving the moment your office chair creaks beneath the weight of your exhausted bones.

Among the program posters, inspirational quotes, fact sheets, filing cabinets and client files, you can find tokens of appreciation left behind in the Advocate’s office as reminders of the reason why we return for the next shift to resume the juggling act.
A new intake comes in with set expectations that are – in a perfect workday – met and exceeded. The impact of their stay can be a drop in a pool or a cannonball in a puddle but when a woman moves on from the YW’s services, sometimes she leaves behind more than a success story and an earned pat on the back.

As proverbial House Mom’s we get all kinds of crafty goodies and sentimental cards in lieu of thanks. Whether they are personal gifts, as in a Pug-nosed card for a certain Pug-nose lover (Adore their squishy faces!) or something for everyone to utilize, like the nifty hand-painted rock that will not only prop open our office door but aid in ushering in the next wave of women in need with motivational script and crafty colours, we keep them around for years and reflect.

These tokens stick around on billboards, hang from tacks in the wall and prop our door open as reminders of the connections we have made to the women and families we serve. Housing may be their primary reason for being beneath our roof, but once they come under the umbrella of the YW’s services they find that much more happens beyond the doors then housing searches.
Since frontline staff don’t always get the pleasure of following-up with our ladies and their families once they have procured housing and moved on from the cameo spent with us in their lives, every so often, it’s nice to remember that the door-stopper rock, hand-written cards and beaded dream catchers were crafted with intentions that convey much more than “I was here”. 

An Advocate Drowning in a Sea of Hotshot Executives and Board Members

We would like to introduce you to our newest blogger, Sami-Jo. Sami-Jo has been a women’s advocate at the YW for 5 years, starting as a student and working her way to becoming one of our permanent, full time staff. Sami-Jo along with Suzanne Veenstra, YW’s Community & Public Relations Coordinator, were selected to attend the YWCA Canada‘s 2013 Annual Members Meeting through the Young Women’s Leadership Miles Fund, empowering women under 30 to attend national and international events. Sami-Jo has put together her reflections of her time at the AMM.

Having never participated in the YW’s events or blogs and staying mostly silent in staff meetings, not to mention having never traveled alone or looked 5 years in the future when considering my career, I found myself shocked when I handed over an application for the YWCA’s Young Women’s Leadership Miles Fund. Expecting anyone to fund a perpetual non-joiner was laughable, especially considering I was asking them to send me to Winnipeg for the YWCA’s 2013 Annual Membership Meeting. Unless a colleague briskly encouraged me to do it (*cough cough* Outreach Worker/Family Shelter Advocate Lori Papetti), I never would have thought twice. Nonetheless, I’m glad I stopped being so stubborn and gave in. Many times frontline staff have a sense their superiors think of them as transitory employees who are intelligent and useful but will ultimately spend a cameo of their lives in the company before moving on to other endeavours. Confession? I definitely thought so.

While in Winnipeg at the YWCA’s 2013 AMM’s I learned that it’s not easy for others who spend days sifting through policies, procedures, motions, allocations, membership fees, travel pools, committee reports, governance, succession planning, risk management plus the national strategic plan as well as Form 4301 threatening to change not-for-profit organizations forever AND a whole whack of issues my brain couldn’t process … (phew! That was a lot)
My rambling point again? Right! Management and Board Members have their plates, side dishes and serving bowls overflowing with issues I can’t even begin to tackle in my day to day life and we can’t expect them to understand what it means to be face-on in the trenches getting our hands dirty when they have bigger fish to fry. Fish that effect change to hundred’s or thousand’s of woman and families, instead of the ones directly in front of them, reaching more than I do in a year.
And…it all comes from funnelling ideas and needs from frontline staff; from the employees who speak to the woman and families we service, who see the changing atmosphere in our communities and who exhaust themselves trying to make people’s lives a little brighter, with the idea’s trickling down from the top. If we don’t let these “toppers” know what’s happening below we can’t expect greatness.
Left: Sami-Jo, Suzanne, Elisabeth (E.D.), Carolyn (Board Pres.)

In large meetings and ballrooms it didn’t make a difference to the others, that I was the “only frontline staff.” They were happy to hear stories and answer my questions about the world I had let my colleague talk me into delving deep into and I found myself absorbing all the positive vibes and spirit the YW seeks to spread not only in my community in the Niagara Region but around the world.

In those few days I felt a sense of belonging to this organization, in a way I had never felt before; a deeper understanding for what my role “should” entail. I felt a comradely with another colleague who I never knew what she did all day (though she was only a flight of stairs away) and a realization that “toppers” really aren’t all that scary and neither are the issues they face, they are just different than my own and reflect everything I try to accomplish everyday in a ‘wow-that’s-a-lot -of-responsibility’ kind of way.
Moving forward I will hold what the YWCA’S 2013 AMM and their keynote speakers imbedded within me and seek to tap into that reserve the next time I feel my confidence in my role wavering. Above all, I whole-heartedly recommend anyone not in upper management or board member level attend a future AMM and soak in the spirit of an organization who does everything they can to address issues concerning woman, girls and families struggling through every day life no matter what their budget, exhaustion or role entails.

– Sami-Jo
Women’s Advocate

The YWCA Niagara Region is one of 32 YW member associations across Canada. For more information about the YWCA Canada and the women’s movement we are a part of, click here.