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.

Who inspired us in 2016?

The holidays are almost over. But it’s not too late for us to squeeze in our annual list of stories that inspire us—an Imagine a City tradition! We think you’ll agree that the incredible people highlighted below are a lovely reminder of everyday acts of kindness that add up to big change for people and families across our region.

Do you have a story you think should be on the list? Share in the comments section and let us know!

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Carly Goldhar (left) and Charley Rangel of the Odd Sox Project.

1. Putting their best foot forward: Carly Goldhar and Charley Rangel, both 10, are the perfect match. The best friends co-founded the Odd-Sox Project last November after learning how important a pair of socks can be to someone experiencing homelessness. The girls have organized sock drives throughout the region, collecting gently used socks—whether matching or not—and donating them to shelters in the GTA. “It puts a smile on our faces. It’s good to know that we can help people in need,” Charley told The Thornhill Liberal. “We just want to inspire people to be themselves, while also giving back,” added Carly. To date, the girls have donated more than 30,000 pairs of socks and have even started their own sock line. Way to go, Charley and Carly. You really know how to step up for our community!

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U of T student, Tarek Bin Yameen, says the eye clinics would not be possible without the help of non-profit organization, Mes Amis, and Dr. Ike Ahmed and the team at Prism Eye Institute.

2. Making the transition to a new country a little clearer: Tarek Bin Yameen and his family came to Canada as immigrants after the civil war broke out in Yemen. Now a second-year medical student, Tarek is using his personal experience to help other newcomers get the best start in Canada. With the help of St. Michael’s Hospital staff ophthalmologist, Dr. Myrna Lichter, the U of T student is organizing a series of free vision clinics for Syrian refugees. To date, nearly 500 people have been treated, ensuring their health remains a top priority despite juggling the demands of settling in a new country. “When I see these newcomers in Canada, when I see the children, they remind me of my own personal experiences that I had as a kid,” Tarek told CBC. “This country gave me an opportunity to come here and study here and I’m paying it forward.”

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Joe Roberts (right) is joined by a crowd of supporters on his Push for Change journey.

3. A journey to end youth homelessness: In 1989, Joe Roberts was battling a drug addiction, homeless and pushing a shopping cart through the streets of Vancouver. Today, he’s still pushing a shopping cart—but this time it’s across Canada to raise awareness and funds to prevent youth homelessness. Joe, the former President and CEO of a successful multimedia company, fortunately found a life off the streets. But although his experience remains in the past, he knows first-hand the struggles homeless youth still face today—as well as the potential they have to turn their lives around when given the chance. Joe’s cross-country trek began in St. John’s this past spring and will end in Vancouver next fall. You can follow his 9,000 km journey by visiting The Push for Change website.

And although these three stories are pretty amazing, we just couldn’t help adding one more to the list!

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Joshua and Abigail Dunbar with Mayor John Tory.

4. A duo delivering big community change: Abigail Dunbar, 10, and her brother, Joshua, 9, aren’t playing around when it comes to creating change in their Jane and Finch neighbourhood. The siblings made headlines this summer when they spearheaded an initiative to improve a local playground—not just for their own enjoyment, but for all children in their community. “I would like to have on it a wheelchair ramp, an accessible swing, big slides,” Abigail told CTV News. With the help of Future Possibilities for Kids, the duo have wrote letters to everyone from politicians to school board trustees, have an online petition with more than 350 signatures, and have even met with Mayor John Tory. With these community superstars leading the charge, we anticipate big results in the coming year!

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