Graduation class celebrates a bridge back to safety

Gutsy agency supports the women impacted by abuse

Bridges executive director Jan Bate (left), program coordinator Titi Adebanjo, counsellor Diane Gilliland and administrative coordinator Cindy Allen.

Gutsy agency supports the women impacted by abuse

Twenty women will hold their graduation caps close to their hearts this Thursday, Sept. 22, but it won’t be for completing their high school diplomas, their undergrad degrees, or even their PhD distinctions. According to some of the women, it’ll be even more important: choosing a life free from violence and abuse, choosing sobriety over pain maskers and choosing their new selves over old habits.

When it comes to delivering their thank yous, the first will go to the program that helped them get to where they are today — Bridges for Women, a gutsy community agency that delivers training and support to women impacted by abuse.

For the last 23 years, Bridges has been helping women access training for employability, education and breaking the patterns of abuse. The Bridging Employment Program, which was started by a handful of women sitting around the kitchen table who realized the gap in services, has seen more than 50 graduating classes and has helped over 1,000 women since it started. Participants of the program practice self-awareness and self-esteem, while learning how to recognize cycles of violence, how to work in groups, how to form effective communication and conflict management skills, along with financial management. Then they move into the career-focused work like resume building, interview skills and networking.

“Many women stay in abusive situations because they cannot imagine getting a job and being able to care for their kids alone,” says Jan Bate, Bridges executive director. “After 23 years, Bridges for Women is still advocating for the needs of women because women still need our services.”

Thanks to governmental funding and individual donations, the program remains free to all women who seek its assistance. In the last few years, however, funding cuts reduced the services to part-time workshops over six months, which Bate says has left many women graduating without feeling ready to leave the program. To remedy that, Bridges has developed an online program, and graduates of all programs have access to ongoing mentoring sessions.

“No matter what happens out there, we tell the women that they will always have a home here — and they will,” says Bate. “The shame is just that we don’t have the funding to offer more services to people, because at the end of the day a centre has to have a bare level of funding to operate.”

Despite the lack of funds, the program is open to any woman who self-identifies as having been through abuse, violence or trauma — though staff are quick to point out that, when it comes to qualifying what counts as abuse, this is where things get tricky.

“Many women don’t recognize what they’ve gone through as abuse because maybe it wasn’t physical, or it’s something they’ve grown up with since childhood so, to them, it feels normal, or they think it’s something wrong with them,” says Diane Gilliland, a counsellor at Bridges. “But what we see is that abuse becomes a barrier in learning, and in getting a job — it makes you afraid, lowers your self esteem, affects your identity, can develop feelings of unworthiness. And because so much shame is involved, sometimes it can even mean taking time off to be ‘sick’ or avoiding the outer world if the woman is hiding the abuse.”

The program sees women from ages 19 to 64 who are willing to make a heavy commitment. Part of qualifying for the program involves the expectation that women will commit to sobriety, as well as removing themselves — and staying removed — from their abusive homes or situations.

“It is hard to make changes to your life-long learned survival skills such as isolation, silence, aggression, and fear,” says Bate. “As [the women] progress through the program, they learn more about themselves and about the dynamics of abuse. This can be difficult learning, but once they are through those difficult lessons they start to shine.”

Gilliland echoes Bate’s sentiment, adding that resilience becomes a huge part of celebrating the women’s achievements.

“We are with them from the minute they first talk to us on the phone to long after graduation … we see a deconstruction, then a reconstruction of their identities,” says Gilliland. “They see people really care about them, and we watch them bloom.”

By the time graduation day comes, Bate says the women are more integrated in the community and excited to be entering the job market. Oftentimes, they’ll be cheered on by children or parents.

“It’s easy for people to see these women and make judgments, but often they aren’t just choosing abuse or freedom — they’re choosing security or poverty,” says Titi Adebanjo, Bridges program coordinator.

Adebanjo adds that, despite the stigmas, the program does see participants from street-level to PhD graduates. “What we see more than anything are the strengths these women bring in the door with them. We just help them dust those strengths off to shine. This really can happen to anyone … but these are women with enough courage to say no more.” M

 

To find out how to access help or volunteer with the program, visit bridgesforwomen.ca.

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