3 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we put together a list of three women who inspire us. These remarkable individuals live right here in Toronto and York Region—changing lives and making our community a better place to live each and every day.

JOSHNA MAHARAJ: Joshna’s appetite for community change is insatiable. As a busy chef with big ideas, the South African native has demonstrated a tremendous passion for turning her culinary interests into community activism. After graduating from McMaster University, Joshna spent time living in India before returning to Toronto to pursue a career in the food industry. Joshna believes passionately that food “is a crucial piece of community building and rejuvenation.” She began her culinary career at The Stop Community Food Centre and also volunteered at FoodShare, a United Way-supported agency, where she helped develop a student nutrition program. At the Scarborough Hospital, for example, she worked tirelessly to overhaul the patient menu to include healthier, more culturally-appropriate options—the first project of its kind in Ontario. These days she’s busy working on her vision to bring large-scale change to the healthcare, rehabilitation and education sectors so that people can access fresh, local food when they visit places like hospitals and universities. “Food is such a perfect common denominator,” says Joshna. “It nourishes our bodies, but it also nourishes our spirit. There is a connection and a conviviality that comes from gathering in a kitchen, community garden or at a table. These are things that really give people a sense of belonging.” We love Joshna’s passion for her work and her tireless efforts to bring people together around food. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next!

CHEYANNE RATNAM: At just 14, Cheyanne experienced hidden homelessness, couch-surfing with friends after she was forced to leave home because of family conflict and abuse. Cheyanne, who is Sri Lankan, was eventually placed into the care of the Children’s Aid Society where she remained during high school, yet managed to excel. Despite struggling with homelessness and a number of other barriers—including mental health issues like depression—Cheyanne was determined to build a better life for herself—and others just like her. Today, she’s thriving, after graduating from university and pursuing a busy career in the social services sector where she advocates on behalf of homeless newcomer youth and young people in and out of the child welfare and adoption system. One of her proudest accomplishments? In 2014, she co-founded What’s the Map—an advocacy and research group that has started a cross-sectoral conversation on how to remove barriers and better meet the needs of newcomer homeless youth. Cheyanne is also a public speaker for the Children’s Aid Foundation and a coordinator at Ryerson University for an education symposium for youth in care. And despite a busy schedule, she still finds time to mentor young people experiencing homelessness and other barriers. We’re inspired by Cheyanne’s remarkable resiliency and passion to help young people. And we’re not the only ones! Last year, her alma mater, York University, recognized her with a prestigious Bryden Award that celebrates remarkable contributions to the university community and beyond. “I hope to send a message to young people who are facing barriers that they are not alone and that it’s ‘OK to not be OK’. I want them to know that we’re here to help. The present circumstances should not define who you are or who you’ll become.”

SUSAN MCISAAC: We may be a little biased, but we think our recently-retired President and CEO, Susan McIsaac, is an extraordinarily inspiring individual who has dedicated her life’s work to championing social justice. During her 18 years at United Way (six years at the helm), Susan was a key architect of United Way’s transformation from trusted fundraiser to community mobilizer and catalyst for impact. She’s an inspiring example of a bold and compassionate leader who cares deeply about making a difference in the lives of people and families across our region. “We have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to make sure the kind of disenfranchisement that has cracked the foundation of other places doesn’t jeopardize our home,” explains Susan. “To make that happen, we need to re-commit ourselves to ensuring that anyone and everyone who works hard can get ahead.” It’s this very sense of commitment that continues to reverberate throughout the community services sector and beyond. So much so, in fact, that just last month, Susan was awarded the TRBOT’s Toronto Region Builder Award for her significant contribution to improving communities, and in 2014 was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by WXN.

5 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! We’re excited to share this list of inspirational women who are changing lives and making our communities better places to live.

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1. Ratna Omidvar: Ratna knows firsthand the struggles of being a newcomer. Born and raised in India, she immigrated to Canada with her husband in 1981 with the hopes of a better life. After years of trying to find work as a teacher, the Order of Canada recipient eventually landed at St. Stephen’s Community House, a United Way–supported agency—and hasn’t looked back since. During her decades-long career in the non-profit sector, the founding executive director of Ryerson’s Global Diversity Exchange has made it her personal mission to help immigrants settle and find jobs once they arrive in Canada. She’s become one of the country’s leading experts on migration, diversity, integration and inclusion and has championed several causes—including DiverseCity onBoard, an innovative program that connects people from visible minority and underrepresented communities to volunteer board positions. Ratna’s passion for her job —and her ability to mobilize community, corporate and labour partners in a common cause of caring and action—is truly awe-inspiring. Recently, her trailblazing efforts helped welcome hundreds of Syrian refugees to Canada by launching Lifeline Syria which recruits, trains and assists sponsor groups. “My work helps ordinary people on their way to success,” explains Ratna. “But what’s more, the work that I do helps Canada re-imagine itself in light of its new demographics, which shapes our identity, values and how our institutions behave.”

2. Hannah Alper: She may only be 13 years old, but this Richmond Hill resident has already demonstrated her ability to create big change when it comes to the world of charitable giving and social justice. When she was just nine, Hannah started a blog to share her growing concern for the environment. She wanted to show the world that doing little things can add up to make a big difference. Soon, she found herself on the speaking circuit, sharing her views on everything from animal rights to youth empowerment. She is an ambassador for Free the Children and ByStander Revolution and a Me to We motivational speaker. She’s also a bit of hero in her own community, where she received a student success award from the York Region District School Board for rallying her school to get involved in an international clean water campaign and local recycling program. Recently, Hannah was a speaker at a United Way of Winnipeg conference where she shared tips with youth leaders to make their communities better. “Take a look around you,” says Hannah. “Find your issue—that thing that you care about—and then get involved. There’s always a way to pitch in.”

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BERNARD WEIL / TORONTO STAR

3. Cyleta Gibson-Sealy: In this Toronto Star article, she was hailed as the “ticket out of poverty” for children in her Steeles-L’Amoreaux neighbourhood.  All because of a homework club she started almost a decade ago after a group of local kids asked for help with reading. Cyleta’s passion project grew so large and so popular that she eventually moved the “Beyond Academics” club to the ground floor of a community housing building at Finch and Birchmount. Today, you can find her helping local children with everything from reading and math to civic literacy and lessons on leadership. “She’s one of those special people who transform streets into communities,” writes the Star’s Catherine Porter. “She sees problems. But she devises solutions.” But that’s not all. In her spare time, the 54-year-old grandmother runs local baseball and soccer camps, started a parents’ club and sits on a community liaison committee. She says much of her community work was inspired by United Way’s Action for Neighbourhood Change that helps local residents create the kind of change they want to see in their community.

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4. Denise Andrea Campbell: Denise’s lifelong mission to create fairness and equity for all people inspires us. As the City of Toronto’s Director of Social Policy, Analysis and Research, she has worked tirelessly to champion poverty reduction and youth success strategies in priority neighbourhoods. In fact, she’s been working as a social change agent since she was 16 years old. She’s collaborated with federal cabinet ministers to create youth engagement programs, has advised on strategy for leading foundations including The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and has even worked internationally on race and gender policies in numerous United Nations forums. Most recently, Denise led the development of the city’s first-ever poverty reduction strategy. “In order to level the playing field, we need to pay attention to those that are most vulnerable and most distant from opportunity,” explains Denise. “That means changing our policies, our programs and even our perspective to support these Torontonians and ensure they have access to the opportunities all people deserve.”

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5. Julie Penasse: For years, Julie Penasse struggled with poverty, abuse and addiction.  But with a whole lot of perseverance and a little help from a United Way–supported agency, she turned her life around. But that’s just the beginning of Julie’s inspiring story. Ever since, she’s been using her personal experience to help others—influencing social policy by ensuring the unique voice of women living in poverty is heard throughout the community. Most recently, she was a key contributor in the city’s community consultations on poverty reduction where she inspired other women to share their stories and advocate for what they need most—things like stable work, affordable housing and childcare. “When you better the woman, you better the world,” says Julie. We couldn’t agree more.

Inspired by one (or more!) of the women on our list?  Send a note of encouragement to uweditor@uwgt.org and we’ll pass your message along.