Homeless single mothers equipped for a new life
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Homeward Bound offers single mothers a place to live, child care, a college education and a chance to turn their lives around.
May 20 2013. By: Carol Goar
An outsider would have thought there was a revival meeting underway on the 54th floor of the TD Tower one evening last week. There was clapping, hollering, even the odd “amen.” Ed Clark, chief executive of the TD Bank and host of the gathering, didn’t display any sign of discomfort or disapproval. In fact, he seemed to be enjoying himself.
It was the graduation ceremony for 22 single mothers who had completed Homeward Bound, a four-year program that offers homeless women with children the chance to turn their lives around.Woodgreen Community Services provides housing, education, child care, academic upgrading a two-year community course and a job placement. The women — many scarred by domestic abuse — work harder than they’ve ever worked in their lives.
Clark, the donor who provided $1.35 million in start-up funding — and $1.65 million since — presided over the event like a proud patriarch. Brian Smith, president of Woodgreen, who designed the program, acted as ringmaster. Pauline Hockenstein, who worked with the women, described their four-year transformation. Two provincial cabinet ministers and an array of business leaders filled the room.
But they were bit players. The stars of the show were graduates. In some ways, they were typical: giggly, nervous, dressed to the nines. In more important ways, they were anything but typical. They came with their children, heavy baggage from their past lives, a lingering sense of disbelief that they’d made it and a gratitude so overwhelming all four valedictorians broke down trying to express it.
That was when the audience got involved. First there were waves of supportive applause. Then came a few encouraging comments from the floor. By the time the third speaker, Melicia Clark, choked up, many of the 150 people in the room had joined the chorus. Finally, some added some well-timed “amens.”
To call the scene in the executive sanctum of Canada’s second largest bank incongruous would be an understatement.
Four years ago, these graduates were living in women’s shelters, hiding behind false names, not daring to think about the future. Today, they are working in banks, law offices, high-tech firms or Woodgreen’s network of early learning centres. Their salaries range from $35,000 to $55,000. Their lives have structure and purpose.
“I came to Canada (from Jamaica) as a teenage single mother fleeing domestic abuse. That was my story — my only story — from which I could not escape,” Melicia Clark said. “At Homeward Bound, I started to understand that my life was more than one story. Now I am an honours graduate from George Brown in early childhood education, a cake designer, an event planner and a working mother.”
Michelle Rusk was recommended for the program by Nazareth House, a refuge for single mothers. She had arrived at the women’s shelter pregnant and alone with no idea how to look after a baby or survive on her own. But the staff saw her potential. Today she has a diploma in business management from Seneca College, a can-do attitude and a trusting four-year daughter. “It gave me security. It gave me a sense of community. Now I have the opportunity to set a new bar for my life,” she said, trying to thank Woodgreen and its sponsors for everything she’d been given. She couldn’t find words big enough. Her 100-megawatt smile sufficed.
Since Homeward Bound began nine years ago, 176 women with 216 children have lived on its east-end campus which consists of a central nucleus, two apartment buildings and a child-care facility. All of them got jobs. Eighty-five per cent are still employed.
The program is expensive. It costs about $65,000 per student. And it depends on corporate sponsors willing to provide jobs and donors willing to give generously. But it also demands a lot of the women. They have to stay focused when their kids are sick, push ahead when they’re tired discouraged and beat back the doubts and fears from their past.
“Do we have the courage, the energy, the discipline to change our lives?” Ed Clark asked his well-heeled guests. “These graduates did.”
He turned to the young women. “You are an inspiration for all of us,” he said. “You are our hope.”
It was about as fine a send-off as a graduate could wish.
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