L’Oreal Paris, the world’s number 1 beauty brand is dedicated to empowering women. The Women of Worth honours extraordinary women who selflessly volunteer their time to serve their communities. The philanthropic program signifies the message that “Every Women Is Worth It”.We interviewed the following nominees, Cindy Blakely, Simryn Atwal, and Rhonelle Bruder.

Cindy Blakely: New Circles Community Service in Toronto, ON is a multi-tiered agency that provides essential support including clothing, training, and settlement to a newcomer and low-income Canadian families.

What inspired you to start giving back and get involved with charity? Was there a specific moment or story behind it?

My family has always been involved in giving back, you could say that community involvement is in my DNA. As a teen, I had a variety of experiences in the volunteer and not-for-profit sectors, and that led me to a career in social work.  But what really inspired me to take action was what I saw in my career as a social worker in the Toronto District School Board. Every day, kids were coming into school whose families just did not have the means to meet their basic needs. There were programs to help them keep a roof over their heads, and programs for hunger relief through the school system and in the community…but there was a gap around clothing. Kids would show up without a warm winter coat or boots – how can you play and have fun during a Canadian winter recess?  I couldn’t watch this day in and day out and wait for someone to make a change. These kids and their families were struggling. We needed to be that change, so we got started. And sixteen years later, here we are! I believe in dignity for everyone by having seasonally appropriate well-fitting clothes

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights identifies clothing as a basic necessity, which together with food and housing, creates the foundation for an adequate living standard. Proper clothing is essential to good health, self-esteem, social inclusion, and employability. 

What has been the most gratifying moment of your experience with New Circles Community?

It feels so good to see people whose lives have been changed for the better because they have been at New Circles. This includes families that are relieved that they have free clothing, people who have been able to find their first jobs in Canada because of our training programs, and volunteers whose lives have been enriched by helping others and getting to know and appreciate people from different backgrounds and cultures.

I have a library of anecdotes and special memories but let me share this one story with you. A young family came to New Circles, newly arrived in Canada, completely ill-prepared for the harshness of Toronto winter.  We outfitted the children and parents with a full complement of winter clothing.  Their smiles and repeated thank you’s were touching but the stand-out part of this story, was when I saw the mother of this family come back to New Circles several months later with a volunteer application in hand.  She wanted to serve her new community, give us the time she had while her children were in school to gain work experience at New Circles, better herself, and better her community. Another new circle was created!

You have accomplished quite a lot with New Circles Community Services. What is your next goal for this cause?

We want to serve more people. During the Syrian crisis, we were able to serve nearly 15,000 people in a year, so we know we have the capacity to do it. The pandemic has really impacted our ability to reach people because of stay-at-home orders and reduced capacity to serve on-site in our “store”, so we are working on defining the best way to expand our reach in a way that will be accessible to everyone who needs us. We are also expanding our skills training programs, which are helping about 100 people a year improve their employability. 

The Canadian government has set a target to welcome over 800,000 newcomers in the next two years – that’s a lot of people who will need support as they begin their settlement journey – and there are plenty of Canadian-born folks who have been seriously impacted by the pandemic and who need support too. As Toronto’s largest clothing program and a provider of skills training, it is essential that New Circles is prepared to meet this need as much as possible. 

The famous L’Oreal tagline “Because I Am Worth It”, what motivational message would you give struggling women today to remind them that they are “worth it”?

My motivational message to women is your matter, you matter in this world.  As a social worker, I’ve focused on helping people understand their inherent worthiness for my whole career. A sense of self-worth is a fundamental building block upon which people can actualize their full potential. I think women can struggle with the idea that they are “worth it”, that they matter. The demands and pressures placed on women are real and multiple including competing pressures related to family, work, friends, media, and so on. I want women to know that the world needs them and their unique skills, talents, beauty, and contributions to society. All women matter and all women are of worth. 

You have helped over 10,000 people each year, New Circles has 13 full-time employees. How did you grow your charity to reach this point?

As with every worthy cause, it really came down to understanding the issue, listening to the needs of the people in the communities we serve and responding to those needs. I have been fortunate to be surrounded by community-minded people my whole life, and that helped to gather the volunteers we needed to get everything started. We worked hard, but we had a good time doing it, knowing we were building something truly needed. 

By shining a light on the issues our clients were facing with our professional and personal contacts, we had a story to tell. By creating a focused plan on how we would address those issues, we had a roadmap to operationalize our vision of how to address those issues. And by being clear about what kind of resources it would take to make a bigger difference in these areas and the kind of impacts we could make together, we were able to secure the funding and volunteer power we needed to keep growing and growing. 

You need lots of faith to run a charity. Who is someone you look up to when you are feeling down?

Honestly, I look up to and take heart and strength from the people we serve. They give me the faith and determination to keep going because of their bravery and resilience. A few years ago, I was doing an intake interview with a client for one of our programs. She had recently emigrated from Kabul. She was excited about the future she was building for her two children and hopeful about her prospects for work in the near future. During the course of the interview, she referenced the fact that she in fact had four children, but that two of them had died when a bomb landed on their house.  I sat there stunned and we both cried. In the aftermath of such an awful tragedy, she had the grit, determination, and resilience to pack up her whole life, leave everything behind and move to a country where she knew no one, in the name of a better future for herself and her family. Despite the enormous struggles she had faced, there she sat before me, smiling and hopeful and excited about the future. I think about her often and continue to marvel at her strength and courage. She is but one example of the many people I have encountered who have shown me the depths of the resilience in the people we serve. And that gives me so much faith to keep going.

What advice would you give someone who wants to start getting involved with charity work?

My advice is to start yesterday. Too often, volunteer works get put on the back burner or delayed indefinitely as the competing demands of life take precedent.  So I would say, just start.  Volunteering feeds the soul, connects you to your community, and as I always say to my children, “giving is better than receiving.”  

Simryn Atwal :Bridge The Gap Mental Health Association in Surrey, BC actively delivers mental health educational programs to marginalized groups in society, making resources, and peer to peer facilitation more accessible. 

What inspired you to start giving back and get involved with charity? Was there a specific moment or story behind it?

As someone who grew up in a marginalized community, and as a person of colour, I had first-hand experience dealing with the intricacies and barriers in receiving mental health help. I dealt with the sometimes month-long wait times just to speak with a councillor and saw my friends desperately needing help but being swallowed up into an underfunded and understaffed inner-city school system. With teachers already stretched thin, and lack of funding and cuts to pivotal programs, there seemed to be no help to turn to. That prompted me to start my work with Kids Help Phone, as the youngest regional chair in Surrey. I was able to fundraise almost $60,000.00 to support free counselling services in my local community. However, through this work I saw a pervasive issue, there were amazing free services in the area but students were completely unaware of it. I started Bridge the Gap to address this accessibility barrier and by partnering with professional health services, free counselling and creating my own resource packs and peer mentors I hoped to stop more kids from falling in the cracks of an inner-city school system. 

What has been the most gratifying moment of your experience with Bridge the Gap Mental Health Association?

The most profound moment for us as an organization, and what reaffirmed the work we were doing was the first mental health matters workshop we did. When we launching our resource kits and peer support in front of a crowd of 400 high school students we did not know what to expect, whether the students would be receptive to our conversations, and whether they would open up. We had a group of young speakers from diverse backgrounds with lived experiences and who also dealt with the inner-city school mental health system but we didn’t know if students would care that the speakers came from a similar understanding and familiarity with the community. However, what came out of that first session was so pivotal to us a non-profit. When the students saw that we were not just adults far removed from the high school sphere, but young leaders who understood the barriers in place in accessing mental health services and first-hand experience on the lack of transparency in navigating the health system, they were eager to let us know their own experiences. We had students open up about depressive thoughts, student-athletes who discussed body dysmorphia, and male students giving their thoughts on the gender stigma associated with mental health. We had youth giving open support for their peers and connecting with our own speakers on their personal journeys. By showing the students our vulnerability and not being afraid to have these hard conversations students spoke up in spite of their own fears. We saw the atmosphere change in that school gym that day, and transform one small school into a connected community that vowed to be a support system for each other, and also who felt that they were equipped with the information and tools to start their own mental health journey. That is the same impact and transformation we strive for, in every project we undertake. 

You have accomplished quite a lot with Bridge the Gap Mental Health Association what is your next goal for this cause?

Mental health is such a universal issue in all of its different forms, whether it be dealing with anxiety, depression, or body image issues. When suicide is the second leading cause of death for young Canadians and when one in six youth are struggling with some kind of mental health issue it adds a global lens and perspective. While every community has its own individual added factors, such as cultural stigma, immigrant or socioeconomic level there is a need for open conversations and services in every Province. The dream is to have a national team of young mental health leaders with lived experiences that live in and reflect their communities, connecting high school and elementary school students with the free information and services in their local area. Expanding nationally would ensure that this accessibility barrier is being addressed in inner cities and marginalized populations across Canada. 

The famous L’oreal tagline “Because I Am Worth It”, what motivational message would you give struggling women today to remind them that they are “worth it”?

There is so much pressure for women to be, act, and look perfect. Whether it comes from external forces such as media, magazines, or peers or an internal stressor such as comparing our self-image with others. All of these directions that young girls and women are pulled in can manifest in mental health struggles, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, or anxiety. There is no barometer for worthiness, no objective criteria to compare yourself to. I think you are worth it when you allow yourself to believe you are worth it when you set aside self-doubt and let yourself be proud of the person you are.

It is celebrating what makes you different, what connects you with others when you feel fulfilled by the actions you take and the choices you make. It is giving yourself the space to love the skin you are in and feel empowered to be your authentic self. 

Mental health has been a stigmatized and silent subject for a long time, why do you think it is so vital that we are finally speaking up about it?

There is this innate fear of being vulnerable, that naming a feeling somehow makes you weak. However, there is power in words, the power to create action, to accept yourself and get help. Mental health is a silent crisis, it is in the quietness and the perceived shame that gives it the power to grow. Having these conversations on the issues we are dealing with, whether that is anxiety, loneliness, or depression, allows us to normalize it, and allows others to feel that they are not alone. These issues are globally spanning, no matter your race, nationality, or gender, ,and people should not feel othered in expressing their struggles. In Canada we are starting to have that conversation, starting to grow that support system. When we normalize these mental health struggles we allow others to speak up when they need help, instead of hiding. You give others the space to talk about their experiences and understand the areas they can help in, whether that is by being a better friend or by opening up a non-profit to address an unmet need. By speaking up we bring mental health challenges to the forefront so that we can fight for funding and policy changes.  

You need lots of faith to run a charity who is someone you look up to when you are feeling down?

A guiding presence for me and the people who inspire me when I struggle are my grandparents. They immigrated from India to Canada in the 1960s hoping for a better future but settling in an unknown and unfamiliar country. As one of the only non-white families in their community, they had to deal with a lot of strife, with blatant racism and cultural hardships. But they always had unending faith in a better tomorrow, that they were providing a better life for their families. In the face of turmoil, they worked even harder, carving out a greater multicultural community. Because of their work, I was able to live in that better tomorrow, a multicultural mosaic of families, a country that celebrated our differences. They had the conviction to make a new beginning, and I aspire to carry that same strength with me. I aspire to make my community a better place to live and shape the norms of those in it.   

 What advice would you give someone who wants to start getting involved with charity work?

 Don’t let the fear of the unknown hold you back. It is easy to create doubts on why you can’t start something, but understand that all of your unique experiences give you an irreplaceable ability to create something new. Don’t let things such as your age, gender, or ethnicity become barriers but a springboard to launch your ideas. Understand that nothing comes all at once, it is the minuscule steps in-between that turn a concept into a concrete reality. Your hardships and pain can be turned into something beautiful, for me it was the helplessness of a health system that was failing me. All of my difficulties trying to connect with services, that burning of indignation at the lack of mental health information seemed futile but it allowed me the understanding to launch Bridge the Gap. Also, don’t be afraid to be the changemaker, if you see an unaddressed barrier, a need that you connect with do not be afraid to create that difference, because if not you then who else? 

 With 2020 being a very difficult year for our mental health, what advice would you give people still struggling (ie have not returned to work, or are still socially distanced from their loved ones)

 I would want to stress that it is okay not to feel okay. Not everyone needs to learn to make sourdough, or garden or take up photography during the pandemic. For some it is the daily struggle to get out of bed, to handle feelings of loneliness and isolation, but you are not alone in this. It has been shown that the pandemic has increased the rates of depression, anxiety, and mental health issues for Canadians, and 50% of Canadians have reported to also deal with struggling with the pandemic. Don’t feel that pressure to be okay with this new normal, understand that the people around you are listening if you need to talk. Don’t struggle alone, reach out to counselling services, helplines, or your family doctor when you need it. A big thing for me is focusing on self-care, treating yourself to something daily that brings you even some momentary joy. Whether that is eating some chocolate, putting on a bit of lipstick to feel special, or journaling your struggles, open up the time to put yourself first. 

Rhonelle Bruder: Project iRise, in Toronto ON is a survivor-led organization that offers innovative skills and leadership development programs for at-risk youths and survivors of human trafficking and gender-based violence.

What inspired you to start giving back and get involved with charity? Was there a specific moment or story behind it?

My work in charity and the non-profit world was inspired by my own lived experiences, facing many challenges a youth; homelessness, poverty, sexual exploitation, but ultimately I was able to turn my life around. I’m fortunate that I was able to do that, but I recognize that my story is unique and that most young people with similar lived experiences, do not have the same outcome. That’s why I founded, Project iRISE, to give back to my community and support survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation so that they can heal and rebuild their lives.  

What has been the most gratifying moment of your experience with Project iRise?

Last year, we started our Branding Tattoo Removal service. It was motivated by the fact that many survivors cannot afford to remove tattoos forced upon them by their traffickers. We started a GoFundMe with the hopes to raise the funds to help 20 women remove their branding tattoos not sure how successful we would be. But to our surprise, we had overwhelming support from our community and our iRISE Ambassadors, made up of police officers, teachers, survivors, social workers all committed to helping our cause. The experience warms my heart to this day, it reminds me of the power of community and what we can accomplish when we come together and support each other. 

 You have accomplished quite a lot with Project iRise what is your next goal for this cause?

I’m grateful for all we have accomplished in such a short period of time but we still so much more to do. We are in the midst of developing our Survivor Leadership program, which will provide a comprehensive, trauma-informed, and culturally responsive one-year training that combines coaching, group learning experiences, and peer mentorship. We hope our program will help inform a framework for how to build leadership and create economic empowerment for survivors.  This is something, I’m passionate about because, without the ability to find meaningful and sustainable employment, survivors are at higher risk of being re-exploited.

The famous L’Oréal tagline “Because I Am Worth It”, what motivational message would you give struggling women today to remind them that they are “worth it”?

I would tell women who are struggling to remember that their past does not define their future. Every single day we have a choice, we can choose to forgive, choose to learn from our mistakes, choose to be kind to ourselves, choose to believe that tomorrow will be better than today but only we make it so. The only person that can change your future is you, but you just have to want it and believe you deserve it. 

Your motto is ” “Resilience is my superpower.”, can you explain to us what that statement truly means to you?

I say Resilience is my superpower because it’s probably the most important skill I have developed in my life. We all face unexpected changes and challenges. Some of these may be relatively small, while others have a greater impact on our lives. The ability to tap into our mental reservoir of strength helps us, not only to bounce back but thrive in face of uncertainty. Throughout my life, I have had to tap into my own resilience, to overcome multiple adversities, and each time I did, I learned something new about myself, I gained another skill to add to my toolbox.  Hands down, I can say, I think resilience is one of the most important skills we need in life, especially in these uncertain times.

You need lots of faith to run a charity/cause who is someone you look up to when you are feeling down?

Your absolutely right; faith and hope are essential when taking on a challenge like running a charity. But I’ve always been drawn to challenges because I see them as an opportunity for growth. One person who I have always looked up to is Maya Angelou; she embodies resilience, compassion, and intellect. The name Project iRISE comes from one of my favourite poems, Still, I Rise, written by Maya Angelou. The embodies, what the organization is about, changing pain to power, adversity to opportunity, that no matter what happens to us we too will rise. 

What advice would you give someone who wants to start getting involved with charity work?

I would tell someone interested in getting involved in charity work to pick something that speaks to their soul. Charity and volunteerism should come from a place of love, and passion, not just something we do. It’s important to find a cause that means something to you, it doesn’t necessarily have to come from lived experience but something that relates to an issue you are passionate about.  cause that you will commit you. 

If you had to define Project iRise with one word, what would that word be?

That’s easy, resilience. iRISE is actually an acronym, it stands for resilience, inspiration, strength, and empowerment but resilience is the key to rising. 

The exceptional Women of Worth Honourees will be selected from the nominations to receive a total of $110,000 in charitable grants from L’Oréal Paris. In addition to receiving promotional support for their charities, each Honouree will join the Women of Worth Community, a national platform to support and promote their causes, share information, network, and help spread the spirit of volunteerism across the country.

Happy International Women’s Day Ladies and remember “You Are Worth It Every Day!”

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