Sometimes life can be overwhelming. Let’s say you’re a young woman who married young. You’ve never worked and now you are a mom to a few children. Your partner leaves you, and you’re left with no employable skills. Where to start?
That’s where the Scarborough Women’s Centre comes in.
“There has to be an inner motivation to change,” says Lynda Kosowan, executive director of the centre. “That woman has to start believing that she deserves better.” It’s a long journey, she adds, which may include going back to school, finding work, and navigating the legal system around child support and child custody.
The centre can help women through this journey. It’s a unique non-profit organization serving disadvantaged and marginalized women and welcoming them in a safe environment. Whether it’s helping newcomers to the country find their way, or providing counselling services or printed reference materials, the message is the same for all of them: You are not alone. We are here to help. Learn what you need to move forward in your life.
In fact, Kosowan, a U of T Scarborough alum celebrating 35 years at the centre this year, has been there practically from the beginning. “When I heard about it, I was drawn to the idea of how a center could support women and help them move forward in their life,” she says. She’s worked hard to make this happen, receiving much recognition, including the City of Toronto’s Constance E. Hamilton Award on the Status of Women, and the Ontario government’s Leading Women, Building Communities Award in 2016.
One of the answers that comes out when Kosowan is asked what she’s most proud of is the Request Stop Program on public transit in the city, allowing a woman to ask to be dropped off closer to her home on a route instead of at a designated stop.
Many years ago, the centre worked with the TTC, counsellors and the police to address women’s safety in Scarborough, at a time when there were an alarming number of attacks on women in Scarborough. The successful program was expanded across the city and today, decades later, anyone riding a bus at night can feel a little more comfortable.
“For me, that’s an example of working in partnership with institutions and community partners to improve the lives of individuals with a lot of intersections with gender, whether it’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or immigration status,” says Kosowan.
But that was just the start. Every year, the centre tries to anticipate the different needs of women in the community, hosting about 90 workshops and webinars annually on everything from “Recognizing Risk in Relationships” to “Filing Your Taxes: Benefits & Credits.” Just this past month, the centre started a new outreach program to women with disabilities, which will begin offering webinars to promote healthy relationships for women with visible and invisible disabilities.
Even the pandemic hasn’t slowed down the centre. In a way, it has enabled them to reach even more women by phone, text, e-mail, web conferences and webinars. That’s great for women who have access to the Internet, but for women who don’t, there’s a concern about a digital divide. “We’re advocating for phones or tablets for women who need them, but then you realize that some of those women need to be supported to become digitally literate first,” she says.
Recently, the centre has started a mentoring program, and in addition to a counselling program for all women, aiming one program to younger women specifically, aged 15 to 19 years old. This came from discussions with women at the centre saying that if they had known about the resources available when they were younger, they may not be in the situation they are trying to get out of now.
Kosowan didn’t set out to make a career out of working at the centre but responding to the community and addressing changing needs has always kept her engaged, she says.
“I don’t care about titles or that kind of thing. It’s more, ‘Does what I’m doing mean something?’” It means a lot to the thousands of women whose lives have been changed because of the Scarborough Women’s Centre.