As an organization we were able to navigate another year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the majority of our services continued to operate over the phone and virtually, we were able to provide a continuation of care to the women we serve.
We Started a Community Outreach Van Program
In February 2021 we launched a Community Outreach Van in partnership with PASAN, Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS (OAHAS) and Thunder Women Healing Lodge Society. Our aim has been to address some of the barriers that make it difficult for community members to access necessary services and supports during COVID-19. The pandemic has increased social isolation for many in the community, especially for a disproportionate amount of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) community members that are unable to access traditional health care and social services. With the support from our Harm Reduction Outreach Workers, our outreach van has been travelling across Toronto and Scarborough each week to visit different areas within the community. Our outreach van helps us uphold our commitment to meeting clients safely where they are at, and providing them access to the supports and services they need.
We Participated in National Elizabeth Fry Week
Every year in May, Elizabeth Fry organizations across Canada participate in National Elizabeth Fry Week. Led by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), the week’s theme for 2021 was ‘Human Rights in Action’, specifically human rights issues in the context of prisons. We celebrate each year during the week leading up to Mother’s Day because most women in prison are mothers, and many of these women were the sole supporters of their families at the time they were incarcerated. The theme ‘Human Rights in Action’ also inspired us to record our very first podcast conversation. We chose to focus this episode on the right to housing and the urgent need for safe and accessible housing for all.
We Launched the Reducing Stigma Research Project
In partnership with WomanACT we started a community-based research project in July. The research project aims to improve access to services and supports for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) women with experiences of criminalization and trauma in Toronto. It is specifically focused on access to supports and services related to gender-based violence. We’ve hired two Peer Researchers to help facilitate the research project from start to finish, and conduct community-based action research to generate evidence and develop strategies for reducing stigma and discrimination.
We Created a New Donation Wishlist
In June we launched our donation wishlist thanks to Kits for A Cause. Our wishlist has a list of the urgent items we need most to support women we serve in the community. With our outreach van fully operational, we tailored our wishlist to include items that are handed out directly to the community members we’ve been visiting. BIPOC community members with financial hardships are struggling to meet their basic needs more than ever during the pandemic, so our wishlist consists of essential supplies like personal hygiene items, food, warm clothing, and baby items. Visit our wishlist today and donate what you can!
My Start-Up Started Hosting Chill and Chat Sessions
In 2021 we started hosting Chill and Chat sessions for current and past My Start-Up (MSU) Program participants. Though the MSU program was able to transition to operating virtually fairly seamlessly, we really wanted to give participants a chance to connect with each other outside of regular classes and program workshops. Chill and Chat sessions allow participants the opportunity to get together and discuss some of the pros and cons of being an entrepreneur and share tips with one another. Half-way through the year, the Chill and Chats transitioned from the program coordinator Halyna leading the discussion to past MSU participants making a guest appearance and leading the session. This has been a great opportunity for alumni of the program to share their journey, take a leadership role in hosting sessions, and connect with the current cohort of students as peers.
We Launched a Mindfulness Series
We facilitated our first mindfulness series for Black women aged 18-29, in partnership with Planned Parenthood Toronto and the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in June 2021. With the heavy mental health impacts of the pandemic causing increased anxiety and fear for many, coinciding with the impacts of the recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in 2020, there was need for more resources tailored for the Black community. Our Mindfulness for Young Black Women series gave Black women facing economic and social barriers affordable and effective mindfulness-based mental health services through community programming. Due to the positive feedback we were able to launch another Mindfulness for Young Black Women series that we facilitated in November and December 2021.
We Started a New Podcast Channel
After our first podcast for National Elizabeth Fry Week was released and the positive feedback we received, we decided to turn a one-off conversation into a series of discussions that we could share with a wider audience, by launching our podcast channel called Rising Voices. The aim of Rising Voices is to lift the voices of our clients, staff and community by delving into issues that are impacting the clients we serve. You can access our latest podcast episodes by visiting Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or clicking here for free.
We Started a Virtual Queer Drop-in Group
In July we launched our first virtual drop-in group for 2SLGBTQ+ youth and young adults. Our goal of the group is to have meaningful discussions and form genuine connections with queer youth and young adults. With the amount of queer youth experiencing homelessness and the over representation of 2SLGBTQ+ youth in prisons, we wanted to create a safe space for people to connect with each other. Each month we have folks from the community facilitating the conversation and sharing their experiences. We are hosting our 3rd virtual 2SLGBTQ+ drop-in on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. Reach out to Sabra via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on social media to get the Zoom link. To listen to one of our podcasts that talks more about 2SLGBTQ+ rights, please listen here.
We Participated in an In-person Prisoners Justice Day Event
On August 10th we partnered with PASAN and several other organizations to host a Prisoners Justice Day (PJD) event at the Church of Holy Trinity. PJD started to support the rights of those incarcerated and those who lost their lives while in prison. This year we focused on the many discovered unmarked graves of Indigenous children, the affects of colonization and how that has lead to the over-representation of Indigenous people behind bars.
We Hosted our Virtual Annual General Meeting
On September 8, 2021 we hosted our second virtual Annual General Meeting and released our 2020-2021 Annual Report. The business portion of the evening highlighted the work we’ve been doing the past year and the stability of our organization.
It was also a great opportunity to thank our donors, members, volunteers and staff. After the business portion we hosted a panel discussion on the topic of decriminalizing drugs in Canada, and the importance of shifting perceptions of substance use away from a criminal matter through harm reduction approaches. The conversation touched on the process of decriminalization, how to reduce stigma associated with drug use and increase harm reduction supplies, as well as the need to prioritize community-based services and programs that support people who use drugs.
We Distributed Client Holiday Hampers
Due to pandemic restrictions we had to halt having an in-person holiday celebration for our clients for a second year in a row. Similar to last year, we organized Holiday Hampers for our clients with the help of CHUM Christmas Wish, The Shoebox Project and Mastercard. The holidays are highlighted as a time for joy and cheer, but for many of our clients and their families it can be a very difficult time with increased feelings of isolation and anxiety.
To help mitigate some of the stress some of our clients face during the holiday season, we packed over 100 holiday hampers filled with gift cards, non perishable food items, winter accessories, personal care items, and some sweet treats. We are thankful to everyone who donated items and their time to create these hampers and create a bit of holiday cheer for the women we serve.
That’s a Wrap
2021 was a busy year for us all and we are thrilled to have been able to continue providing support and services to our clients, in new and creative ways. A big thank you to our donors, members, volunteers and everyone that has supported us in 2021. As we look towards the new year ahead, we are hopeful and motivated to see what 2022 has in store for our organization and the women we serve!
Written by: Kendra St. Cyr