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At 16 years old, Lia Grimanis was a homeless teenager, forced to escape a home that had erupted in violence after the passing of her grandmother. She became periodically homeless, returning home when things outside got bad and leaving again when home got even worse. As a woman who is also autistic, she was particularly vulnerable. “As an autistic young woman, you don’t see the red flags. You can’t read faces so don’t see the escalation happening. As a result, it would seem like everything was normal and then it’s a matter of running for your life – you don’t see the train coming until hit hits you.”
Life was difficult for Lia who went through periodic homelessness for several years. The second time her uncle threatened to kill her, she finally called an abuse hotline, where she was encouraged to get to a shelter immediately. Lia hadn’t known that shelters existed, and by the time she got there, she was broken. “It seemed inevitable to me that my life was going to be one of constant struggle and victimization. I didn’t even see the point of living and a lot of my mind was focused on, do I live or do I die?” The day she decided to live was the day she made a promise to herself that she was going to help other women rebuild their lives faster than she could.
It took Lia ten years to get back to her starting line because she’d had to drop out of school. But she was determined and got her foot in the door in technology sales, ultimately climbing the corporate ladder. Her last job was an executive-level position, and her company paid for a coach for her. She quickly saw the life-changing potential a coach could have on an individual, which is how the idea of Up With Women came to be. “I thought, if I could convince coaches to each commit to serving one person for a year, what kind of impact could that have?”
Getting Up With Women off the ground wasn’t easy, however, as gaining access to funding as a new charity in Canada can be a challenge. Staring down the last $5,000 in her bank account, Lia managed to fundraise $40,000 to keep it afloat before RBC and the Ontario Trillium Foundation stepped up as the charity’s first supporters, giving it the funding it needed to provide life-changing services to women and gender-diverse individuals.
What Makes Up With Women Different
Studies show that most homeless women have experienced violence, and many struggle with issues such as low self-esteem, high stress, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. These are issues that create additional barriers to finding or retaining employment and as a result, the cycle of poverty is difficult to escape without support. Up With Women steps in to address the intersecting issues of women’s poverty, homelessness, employment barriers, the gender wage gap and generational poverty through its unique approach to supporting the whole individual.
Up With Women’s full-year program offers high-quality, highly-customized services to individuals who would not typically be able to afford them. Their coaching model is a difference-maker for individuals working to rebuild their lives and careers, as it follows a twelve-month schedule that leads clients to gain self-understanding, build self-confidence and become accountable to the goals they set for themselves.
Coaching is provided by accredited coaches on a pro bono basis. “Each client is receiving $17,000 worth of service at no cost for a full year,” explains Lia. “All our coaches are, at minimum, at the ACC certification level, which requires them to go through 125 hours of training with an International Coaching Federation accredited school and at least 100 hours of professional service.” While she expected finding coaches to be one of the primary challenges of her model, Lia reveals that this is far from the case – coaches have been keen to work with Up With Women and as word of mouth spreads, so does their coaching network.
The transformative power of coaching is evident in the results Up With Women has shared. Even during the pandemic, when coaching was done remotely, Up With Women clients experienced an average annual income increase of 221%, unemployment was cut almost in half, and 57% of clients terminated their social assistance. Lia shares stories of women with little hope, confidence or resources who have turned their lives around dramatically – becoming lawyers, nurses, successful entrepreneurs and more. While their short-term impact is remarkable, the long-term, sustainable impact Up With Women has on the lives of their clients is even more extraordinary.
Serving the LBTQ+ Community
Up With Women serves women and gender diverse individuals, including transgender clients who face tremendous stigmatization and barriers to employment. “When it comes to human rights, trans rights is the last frontier,” says Lia. “We’re in a terribly unfortunate situation in society where it is still socially acceptable to be transphobic. For me, it was critically important that we make sure we’re serving our LBTQ+ clients, including male to female trans people who are early in their stages of transitioning.” A gay individual herself, serving this community is particularly important, as she feels there is a gap in support out there. “There aren’t enough services out there that are quite as committed to ensuring that gender-diverse individuals get the kind of quality services they deserve. I’m deeply proud that we can help them build their careers, build stability and exit poverty.”
Up With Women has recently expanded to four provinces across Canada, serving Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia. Their goal is to help change more than 1,000 lives over the next three years, helping women and gender diverse individuals achieve economic power, self-confidence and sustainable skills that can help them thrive.
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