Eighteen years ago the St. Albert Baha’i established International Women’s Day Awards to honour local women who made significant contributions in arts, sports, culture, science, business, health and the community at large.
Each year individual stories of exceptional women from diverse ages and backgrounds highlight the important roles women play in the community.
The 2014 theme for International Women’s Days is Inspiring Change. The six Baha’i-honoured recipients have in their own ways woven change into the fabric of their lives. And although each woman has been shaped through differing experiences, they are all advocates of children and youth.
These six women will be recognized for their contributions on Saturday, March 8 at Cornerstone Hall. There is a suggested door donation of $10 and any proceeds from the event will be donated to Because I Am a Girl, a global initiative of Plan Canada to end gender inequality.
Corissa Tymafichuk and Andrea Payne – human rights advocates
Corissa Tymafichuk and Andrea Payne are Paul Kane High School students who belong to the school’s Social Justice League, a group that works towards human, animal and environmental equality.
Repelled by the criminal industry of human trafficking, the duo mobilized the first St. Albert Free 2 Walk in support of Not 4 Sale, a global non-profit organization that is dedicated to eradicating the enforced slavery of individuals.
“There are more slaves today than at any time in history in part because the population is greater,” says Payne. “But if you think about it, everyone is human, not a statistic, and it becomes a real issue and is more of a problem than in the past.”
The two met at Sir George Simpson Junior High School in Grade 8 after joining the junior high school;s social justice group. Payne came across a YouTube video on human trafficking and brought it to the attention of Tymafichuk.
“We were both shocked but we knew we had to do something. We could choose to pretend it wasn’t a big deal or do something,” Payne stated.
Tymafichuk continues with, “We knew we had to do something about it, but we didn’t know what to do. Sexual exploitation is a touchy subject and we weren’t sure what to do.”
In Grade 9 the girls put on a slideshow and a year later they put their thoughts into action with the idea of a walk to raise money and awareness. It was a project that invited anyone in the community to be involved, and as an outdoor activity it was visible to passersby.
The walk raised $3,000 and the school’s Taste of Kane pitched in another $2,000. This year on Saturday, May 10 they plan another walk at dusk with a light theme and possibly lanterns. The proceeds will go to the Edmonton-based Action Coalition on Human Trafficking.
“I don’t know all about it, but something needs to be done to stop it,” Payne says. “Just the fact there’s a demand means people in our community must be purchasing.”
Brandi Robinson – child advocate
Brandi Robertson is a single mother raising a special needs child and two foster children as well as being a proud spokesperson for Little Warriors, an organization dedicated to helping survivors of sexual abuse and educating the public.
Robinson was sexually abused at a young age and has made it her mission to speak out against abuse and assist victims in healing.
Raised near Gibbons, she obtained an architectural technologist diploma and studied pharmacy at the University of Alberta.
But it was a trip to South Africa with her aunt volunteering at a school for children with disabilities that gave her a renewed sense of purpose.
“There was so much corruption. One day a girl, 11 or 12, was raped by the taxi driver who drove her to school every day. There’s a common belief that if you rape a virgin, your AIDS will disappear. Because we were there, he was caught. Although it didn’t change the system, it changed for one little girl. She felt vindicated. And I realized that it doesn’t have to be something big. That’s when I knew I needed to do more,” Robinson says.
Following a bad breakup, Robinson adopted a daughter. After learning of her daughter’s abuse, the spirited caregiver’s advocacy took on a new meaning. Robinson connected with Gloria Meldrum, the founder of Little Warriors, who was also sexually abused at age eight.
Together they had a “powwow” and started a letter-writing campaign to politicians for funding. Their dream was to build Be Brave Ranch, a home with an inpatient program for sexually-abused children.
Normally a person who prefers to remain backstage, Robinson became the face of a survivor at media events and fundraising campaigns.
“We went from $1 million to $5 million. The land has been purchased and the buildings are under renovation. When the facilities are running, it will house 100 children.”
In the near future Robinson plans to enrol at MacEwan University to study child and youth development counselling.
“It’s become my thing. I didn’t set out to be the face of this. But it’s an epidemic. It needs a voice. So many people are afraid to tell. I want kids to know they’re not alone – that it was never their fault and there are people that care. They just need to seek them out.”
Eryl Jones – volunteer educator
Go into Eryl Jones house and you’re likely to find her kitchen table buried under volunteer stuff.
This week her basement is crammed with three or four hundred items for St. Albert and Area Retired Teachers Association’s (STARTA) annual auction. But it’s all in a day’s work.
“It certainly enriches your life and you want to feel needed. People who are retired need and like to feel useful,” Jones says of her many volunteer hours.
A former music and drama teacher who retired from Leo Nickerson Elementary School in 1997, Jones is just as busy today as when she worked full-time. Her calendar is packed.
Not only does Jones organize fundraisers for STARTA, as one of its founders she has also served as a director and choir pianist since its inauguration in 1998.
In addition to providing entertainment for its membership, the choir takes the show on the road during the Christmas season to St. Albert, Morinville and Villeneuve senior lodges.
After taking retirement, Jones volunteered numerous hours as a mathematics resource teacher for Grade 6 classes and further challenged herself at the Star Literacy Program tutoring an Afghan woman for four years.
For many years she was also an active member of International Friendship Force, an organization that offers home stays to tour groups and travellers. While travellers from Africa, Australia and New Zealand parked their luggage at Jones’ home, she enjoyed visits to Germany, the United States and New Zealand.
But one program that is dear to her heart is the Little Sprouts Program at the St. Albert Botanic Park. An avid gardener, Jones is an original member of the Little Sprouts Education Committee.
The Sprouts program was initiated as a field trip series for elementary school children. It is packed with information about gardening with music, poetry and storytelling.
“It’s an excellent program and it gets the little ones interested in gardening. They are fascinated in how things grow. Some have never even seen roots.”
A force for equality, Jones encourages women to get out into the community and see what they can accomplish.
“Sometimes women are overlooked and they should be recognized. But men should be too.”
Rebecca Balanko – youth empowerment
For Rebecca Balanko, work is about giving children and youth the confidence they need to stickhandle life.
A community resource program co-ordinator for Sturgeon School Division, Balanko realized that some girls struggle with eating disorders, bullying, daily relationships, body image and assorted other personal issues.
As a mother of three, including one teenage girl, Balanko felt there was a lack of social and emotional support for girls. Adapting and updating material from a previous program she developed GIRLS (Girls in Real Life Situations).
There are two groups: K to 5 and grades 6 to 12. While the younger group does crafts and a series of activities including Zumba, the older groups are often student-led with speakers and activities the adolescents believe are important.
“There are a lot of things girls struggle with – breakups, peer relationships, identifying people strong enough to support you and empowering yourself to make healthy decisions,” says Balanko.
To date she has helped over 500 young girls from ages six to 18 in Morinville and Sturgeon County. As proof of the program’s success, it is now expanding to Camilla School in Redwater.
Balanko also built from scratch a boys-only program for Oak Hill Boys Ranch, a residential treatment program for boys that have gone through the criminal justice system.
The boys, ages 10 to 16 discuss a variety of issues such as healthy and bad relationships, abuse, the law, setting boundaries, loss, empathy and they even touch on addiction.
For the boys, Balanko always makes it a point to bring treats for those who work.
“They feel I’ve invested in them. It makes them feel validated. One young guy was angry and jaded. His eyes threw daggers at me the whole time. At the end, I gave treats to the boys who did the work. He asked ‘where’s mine’ and I told him getting a treat was dependent on the work he did. The next week, he did an about-face.”
Both Balanko’s parents were social workers.
“There’s no way I could walk away from it,” she says with a laugh.
“I feel passionate about it. This is where we live and raise a family. This is where we’ve lived for 12 years. I’m a soccer coach and every child matters. I believe life is about giving, not getting.”
Kaileen Chisholm – youth worker
Kaileen Chisholm is a Morinville youth who has demonstrated a special touch in connecting with emotionally-disturbed and/or special needs children.
“You need patience, understanding and compassion. You have to see a child as a child, not a diagnosis,” Chisholm says.
When Chisholm was quite young, her mother was a respite worker and there were times the youngster tagged along.
After her mother opened the Morinville-based Infinite Resources, a supportive environment for children with behavioural, educational or social issues, Chisholm became actively-involved as a respite worker and playgroup leader.
“To me it is much more rewarding than working at a bookstore or grocery store.”
But what really appeals to her is the inclusiveness of the groups.
“We get kids who are disabled, with bad behaviour, emotionally needy or disturbed. I connect really well with them and made me want to work with them.”
Eventually, the goal-oriented teen aims to obtain a doctorate in clinical psychology.
“I’d like to write a book and own my own facility for people with mental illness and provide new resources for them to be happy.”
International Women’s Day Awards
Saturday, March 8 at 7:30 p.m.
Suggested donation: $10. Call 780-458-5214 or 780-460-2151 to reserve a seat