Sima Sahar Zerehi – The small room nestled behind the reception area was staged with rows upon rows of brand new backpacks, just like the isle of any department store around this time of year.
In the middle row I spot a huge pink backpack and smile thinking of Kirsten’s story.
“A few years ago there was this little girl who was going into junior kindergarten,” began Kirsten Eastwood, the Executive Director of the Women’s Centre of York Region.
“She got this enormous big pink backpack that was almost as big as her, and she put it on. At that moment this little one was so excited that she got this brand new bag, and for her mom it was the relief that her child got the same stuff as other kids and that she didn’t have to worry about how she was going to pay for it, or if she had to buy that or food that week,” recounted Kirsten.
The back to school supplies are part of the centre’s Bridging The Gap program designed to help women in financial difficulty become more independent. In addition to financial literacy workshops the program also offers a food program and seasonal supports such as the Holiday Hamper and Back-to-School drives.
This program is one of the many innovative services provided by the Women’s Centre of York Region, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this September.
The Centre also offers counseling services, life skills workshops, and entrepreneurial and employment skills development for women ready to enter the workforce or start their own business.
The Women’s Centre of York is hidden in an industrial area in Newmarket, occupied predominantly by factory outlets and company headquarters. In contrast to its surroundings the centre is a warm inviting space, decorated with photographs bearing inspirational messages about hope and courage. The two floors devoted to the centre include a childcare area, a computer resource area, and rooms for counseling sessions as well as spaces designated for workshops.
While many of the centre’s activities take place at this location the WCYR also provides numerous services at other locations in order to better serve the large population of women in the region.
The centre’s core services include individual counseling for women in need of support, and transitional support counseling for women who have safety concerns due to exposure to domestic violence. The centre can help women address safety concerns and assist women and their families to access the necessary services suited for their individual needs.
Recently, the WCYR has hired a new Farsi language transitional counselor for those who may wish to access these services in Farsi. The centre also provides additional translation services for women with other language barriers.
The Life Skills program is a group program offered in five different locations. The program is designed to break women’s isolation by creating a community space where they can learn about essential skills such as how to communicate effectively and how to manage conflicts.
“We call the Life Skills program, our glue program because it connects women to each other,” explains Kristen.
In the past two years with the development of their Enterprising Women program the centre has been helping clients hone their skills to enter the workforce for the first time or as returning workers. In addition, the program helps women who want to start their own businesses to develop the necessary tools to become entrepreneurs.
Speaking of this innovative program, Kirsten states, “We often work with community partners, for example we do a series of workshops with Allstate Insurance. They provide resume writing and interviewing skills assistance letting us know what employers are looking for. We did one workshop last spring and one recently and in both cases we had clients who were hired on the spot.”
Although the program has been running for a short time, the centre already boasts a few success stories, including the story of a participant who was interested in starting a composting business using worms.
“Cathy would always talk about her business idea to use worms for creating compost and everyone thought that this was a strange plan. Today, Cathy’s compost business is thriving, and she’s known in the community as a public speaker raising awareness about recycling and reducing our carbon footprint. In fact, she’s featured in the Richmond Hill Ted Talks series. This was a woman who was terrified of public speaking when she started the program” explains Kirsten.
While Kirsten admits that Cathy’s story is unique, she notes that even small successes are worth celebrating.
“We have many individual success stories, last Christmas we had one woman who came and told us that this year she didn’t need the assistance of the Holiday Hamper and that she is able to make due.”
“We recently had a woman in one of our programs go off Ontario Works, and we know what that means for her and her family.”
“We had one participant who was able to get a spot in social housing after twelve years on a wait list. As soon as she moved in, she arranged booking a space in the facility to host our life skills workshops there for the benefit of the women in her new community,”.
The WCYR is currently working on two new initiatives. The first is launching a temp agency offering administrative services to local businesses and agencies looking to fill work shortages. This business would be staffed by the participants in the Enterprising Women program.
The second campaign is the W Project, an online video campaign to empower and educate women about their potential to achieve change.
It’s not hard to see why the Centre has been able to not only sustain itself but also grow in the past 35 years while other social services are struggling to maintain a minimum base of services. Many organizations are stuck in the past, clinging to old programs and outdated models of service delivery, in contrast, the WCYR has been keeping up with the times. Through forging alliances, partnerships and networks they have not only kept themselves afloat but also expanded.
For more information on The Women’s Centre of York Region visit
Also look for the WCYR’s new Farsi language transitional counselor, Lily Pourzand’s, upcoming monthly article in Shahrvand about her work and related topics.