How Women 4 Change makes a difference in young women’s lives

This article was originally published in Illuminessence, May 26, 2014.

A passion for philanthropy and personal development brought together a girls’ school program and an award-winning women’s footwear and accessories store.

Nine young women from Glendale High’s GirlsONLY program had a chance to explore their creative side by designing the public window display of Solee Shoes on Locke Street.

Together, they decided on which items from the store they would display. After four hours, they transformed an empty window into a trendy display of a wedding mannequin, a white bird cage, flowers, and, of course, a variety of stylish shoes.

Store owner and founding member of the Women 4 Change funding initiative Lisa Dalia, suggested the project.

Women 4 Change was established in 2012 by the Hamilton Community Foundation(HCF) to give women a way to be philanthropic leaders. Contributors are women from all walks of life, including lawyers, finance professionals, filmmakers and students. They fund projects that support women. The group’s first grant was to the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board’s GirlsONLY program.

“I am a strong believer in mentorship and thought that if I could connect with even a couple of girls it would be worth it,” said Dalia, who joined the board even before Women 4 Change had a name.

Designing a store window was a learning experience for 16-year-old Carly.

“Our group learned that it’s not as easy as some may think to create what you see in the windows of stores. We learned how to cooperate with others, multitask, and problem solve,” said Carly, who joined the program in October 2013.


The GirlsONLY program was launched 8 years ago by the Board of Education to provide safe spaces for girls where they could build self-esteem and learn about community engagement and leadership.

Initially, the program was available to girls from grade 6 to 8 but with $10,000 from the Women 4 Change fund, it was expanded in 2013 to include secondary schools. Now, about 140 teens from 10 secondary schools participate.

Sheree Meredith of the HCF thinks the expansion was critical because it is just as important for teenagers as it is for girls in elementary school.

“We talked about grants that will act as transition points for girls. It [the grant for GirlsONLY] really allows the program to expand to a new age group and across the city,” said Meredith, vice-president of philanthropic services at HCF.

About $23,000 was given between April 2013 and March 2014 by 53 contributors from Women 4 Change.

“We want to see a grant that will have a significant difference in the lives of women, increasing our ability to be strong and strategic philanthropists,” she said.

Contributors to Women 4 Change also assist with training and facilitation of activities in the GirlsONLY program. The program is tied to the school board’s mental health strategy.

Michelle Bates, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board’s mental health lead explains that the partnership with Women4Change offers mentoring opportunities for the girls. The project with Solee Shoes is one example.

“Our experiences are different, but we can identify similar or common experiences shared as women,” said Bates.


From bracelet-making and nail art to drawing and media literacy, the young women get to decide on the topics they’d like to learn and do a variety of activities. But they are all aimed towards one goal: self-confidence. Through interaction with their peers and teachers in a supportive environment, they feel they belong.

That is one of the reasons why Carly continued to participate in the program after elementary school.

“I like the fact that it’s a safe place for us and I know that these days some girls just need that feeling. I also like how we are able to help one another as a group when times may get tough, or they just simply need help,” she said.

To her, the group is more than just having fun and making friends.

“We can grow and develop together and overcome tasks that may seem a little hard on your own,” said Carly.

“It’s a safe place to be, and for some of us, that’s really all we need.”

Yulena Wan fuses profession and passion

This article was originally published in Illuminessence, January 13, 2014.

Volunteering and giving back have always been a way of life for Yulena Wan.

Even when she was young Wan was heavily involved in frontline volunteering.

While in high school she organized a food drive, ran a breakfast program and coordinated a mentorship program.

“This is the community that raises you, so it is important to give back. Not just take, take, take, but also to give back…You see things where there is a need and you have the ability to fill that,” said Wan, who is born and raised in Ancaster. Her commitment earned her the Ancaster Youth Award.

Dedication to the community continued beyond school for the 28-year-old who is the oldest of four siblings.

She graduated from Brock University with an accounting degree and got her Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) designation in 2010.

Wan then landed a full-time job at Durward Jones Barkwell & Company LLP, where she currently works as a manager in the litigation department.

Not long after she began work, Wan realized that she could utilize her financial expertise outside of her day job to benefit nonprofits.

With this desire to fuse her expertise with her passion for the community, Wan applied and was accepted as a Treasurer for Volunteer Hamilton’s Board of Directors. It was the first organization that Wan volunteered with as a working professional.

Her role at the governance level has taught her the intricacies of how a fast-paced nonprofit functions, and how important it is to set the strategic direction and vision for an organization to answer the needs of the community. More importantly, it strikes her that volunteering shouldn’t stop after school.

“Volunteering is a productive use of your time. The amount of well-being that you can give to the community and you can get yourself, is huge,” said Wan, who believes each of us has an obligation to give back.


On the one hand, volunteering is an extension of Wan’s professional life. On the other hand, she believes that her involvement in the community can send a powerful message to girls.

Wan sits on the Board of Directors of YWCA Hamilton and co-chairs the Women of Distinction Awards committee.

The awards honour women and girls for their leadership, dedication and hard work in the community.

Now in its 38th year, the awards recognize achievements in a wide range of areas from culture to public affairs. There are two categories for specifically for young women (21 and under and 22 to 30).

As the most senior woman in her office, Wan knows that having mentors and role models can enrich a woman’s life.

“If you show them that they can be these things, then they can believe it,” she stressed, adding that women tend to downplay their efforts and underestimate their achievements.


Wan is passionate about food and translates her interest into a volunteering opportunity. She serves as a Community Food Advisor (CFA) for the city’s Public Health Agency and does presentations and cooking demonstrations on food handling, preparation and selection.

A province-wide initiative, the Hamilton chapter has about 40 people, a diverse group that speaks more than 20 languages.

CFAs go through a comprehensive 10-week training to learn about nutrition, presentation skills, gain a Food Handling certificate and also learn how to tailor presentations and cooking classes to different audiences. They present to corporations, schools and community groups upon request.

While the presentations are typically 30 minutes to an hour, Wan admits that a lot more hours go into planning them.

For example, to get kids to understand nutrition and make healthy meals, Wan involves them in the food preparation process.

“They start to care about their food, become interested and start to make better food choices. To me, that is very satisfying. Being able to go out there to change people insights and habits on food,” she says.

She has a message for other young professionals: there are benefits to volunteering for nonprofits.

“There are way too many causes out there to NOT be able to find something that calls to you. We [young professionals] have talent and skills to give back,” said Wan, who was one of the winners of the 2012 CLiC Timeraiser challenge, where she bid 100 volunteer hours and completed them within 12 months in exchange for artwork by a local artist.

“It is in you to give,” she said, citing the motto of the Canadian Blood Services.

Allan Loft Connects Past to Present in Aboriginal Heritage

This article was originally published in Illuminessence, November 23, 2013.

The circle of life is Allan Loft’s guiding principle and approach to humanity. Formerly a photographer and web designer, Loft holds a holistic perspective to spread awareness and understanding of Aboriginal culture in Hamilton.

To connect the aboriginal culture to the past, Loft represented the Native Indian and Inuit Photographer’s Association (NIIPA) to put together two photo exhibitions comprising of 24 photos in total depicting native perspectives on homelessness in 1994 and 1996. Titled Restoring the Connection and Maintaining the Connection, both exhibitions were displayed at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Workers Art and Heritage, and Pow wow events in the city.

“At that time, we decided that there was a whole lot of aboriginal people in the community who were in fact, homeless,” said Loft, who is of Mohawk descent and grew up in the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford.

“But then it goes further than that because with your mental, physical and emotional well-being, homelessness is not just physical…you can be homeless mentally, you can be homeless spiritually, and you can be homeless emotionally,” he said.


Believing that all things are interconnected, Loft works hard to instill a sense of pride and self-empowerment in aboriginal culture and heritage. With funding from the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre, he was hired to form the Healthy Aboriginal Men’s Circle in 1995. The group, which once consisted of 15 members, would represent the aboriginal community to attend events, showcase the culture and also do presentations about aboriginal history and traditions to various organizations.

While funding has ceased for the group, Loft continues to share aboriginal culture and teachings on an ad-hoc basis. He has volunteered as an Aboriginal Cultural Spiritual Advisor and Facilitator (Mohawk) for the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion. For 12 years, Loft sat on the Board of Directors of the Sacajawea Non-profit Housing, which maintains, refers and provides housing to low-to-moderate income native families.

As a speaker and cultural consultant, Loft had sat on the City of Hamilton Aboriginal Advisory Committee and the now defunct Community Arts Ontario, whose mandate was to distribute funds for aboriginal artists and crafts in Northern and Southern Ontario.

Despite his extensive experience and involvements, Loft is mindful and maintains that he can only speak from his own perspectives as a male aboriginal.

“I am an individual and I have my own thoughts on different subjects. I don’t represent the Six Nations per se. I can only speak for what I know and not representing everyone else,” he insists.


In attempt to spread the word about aboriginal culture and teachings, Loft goes live on CFMU 93.3 for his weekly radio show, titled The Aboriginal Component. Every Tuesday between 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., Loft would talk about aboriginal issues, language, contemporary and traditional music.

The idea for the show came to him 10 years ago, when he was a part-time student in Indigenous Studies at McMaster University. He noticed a lack of aboriginal perspective and presence in the university.

So when a spot for a radio show opened up, he knew that it was an opportunity to share his heritage.

“I figure that it doesn’t matter that how many are going there [the university], our presence need to be there all the time,” he said.


In his own words, Loft sums up what he finds to be most crucial in life.

In the most basic concept in our people is the community, that everyone has something to give to the community. The women, intuitively, they know everything to keep the life cycle. The idea and concept of community and concept of communal living is that everybody has something to give to the all. Writers, musicians, counselors…they all bring something to the table. Everybody is equal.

Anisa Mirza’s call to millennials: ‘Give back in whatever way you can’

This article was originally published in Illuminessence, October 1, 2013.

If there is anyone who believes that millennials give back, that would be Anisa Mirza.

But that is hardly a sentiment shared by many, says the 26-year-old, drawing from her five years working in the nonprofit sector.

Whether as a board member, fundraiser, volunteer or manager, Mirza has been told time and time again: the young do not give back.

“The way that nonprofits are running is not going to help us prepare for the leaders of tomorrow. I was really frustrated with the status quo,” said Mirza.

“We were not trying to reach out to young people,” she argued.

She felt this sense of disenfranchisement even more when she managed the Engage Youth in Motion program, founded in 2011 by Settlement Integration Service Organization (SISO), which was once Hamilton’s largest settlement agency. With more than 60 participants, the city-wide program championed a vision of involving youth and getting their voices heard.

Half Pakistan and half Italian, Mirza was born in Canada but moved to Italy and then Pakistan when she was six, where her dad was originally from. She lived there for 10 years before returning to Hamilton. That cross-cultural experience motivated Mirza to work closely with newcomer youth.

Through the program, Mirza liaised with youth organizations, pointing out city’s resources and services to immigrant and newcomer youth from diverse backgrounds.

But as she began building bridges between organizations and youth, she realized a growing need to change the way organizations engage with young donors. She became tired of the assumption that millennials are disinterested and do not have money.

“We don’t understand when it is a good time to ask for a donation, we don’t understand how much they would like to give, we don’t understand what kind of involvement they would like to have,” she said.


While she was determined to challenge that assumption, Mirza was still unsure about the next steps in her career. After working in the nonprofit sector for four years, she handed over the torch and plunged into a new role at a large Toronto-based education technology startup, Top Hat Monocle.

For seven months working as an outside sales rep and accounts manager, Mirza met with potential customers, pitched the company’s software and closed deals. The role gave Mirza a taste of the competitive startup environment, an invaluable experience towards fulfilling her goal of starting her own nonprofit.

“Many times you are learning as you go. You have to have the ability to rise up much faster than you would in a traditional company,” she said.

“You are more hands-on because there are less people and there is a lot more to get done.”


Combining her experience working in a startup with her vision to change the way organizations communicate with young donors, Mirza co-founded Giveffect, a crowdfunding platform built exclusively for charities and nonprofts with an emphasis on next gen donors.

The online giving platform helps registered charities to fundraise and tap into the social networks of young donors in their 20s and teens. 6.2% of the money raised through the platform goes to Giveffect. In return, the company provides charities demographic data about donors.

The focus is on building relationships between the organization and its donors, says Mirza.

“How can we interact with our donors, retain them? Until I understand the beginning of how that relationship grows, how would I be able to manage that relationship going forward?” she said.

Since it started in October 2012, the company has enlisted about 100 charities on its platform, with 39 currently visible on the site. Fifty campaigns have been created for various charities, including War Child, Epilepsy Canada and United Way Bruce Grey.


As she continues to cultivate a culture of giving through Giveffect, Mirza is optimistic that millennials can make a positive change.

“Everyone has a call to action and we need to respond to that call to action,” she said.

“How are you giving back, how are you improving the world?”

“Young people are going to solve the world’s problems. I believe in that … I believe that innovation is at its peak right now, and it is only going to get better. Don’t sell yourself short, you have a responsibility.”

And this is her call to action to her fellow millennials: “Give back in whatever way you can.”

Audra Petrulis: A champion for feminism

This article was originally published in Illuminessence, September 16, 2013.

Audra Petrulis is not afraid to call herself a feminist, an activist and ally. These qualities are the core of her professional and personal life.

A self-described rule breaker, she states,

“I resist and rebel, pushing boundaries – both my own and those around me.”

Born in Kingston and raised in Burlington, Petrulis credits her dad for insipring her passion for social justice.

“I get my defiant nature from him and we engage in lively dinner conversations/debates where we challenge and learn from each other,” she said.

Her sense of social justice was nurtured during high school, beginning in a grade 11 law class.She oversees the Transitional Living Program at the YWCA Hamilton, a program which offers temporary housing to women affected by poverty, homelessness, mental health issues or violence.

“I could see instances of injustice around me and I wanted to be part of the solution to rectify them,” she said.

Petrulis pursued a BA in Women’s Studies, a diploma in an Assaulted Women and Children’s Counselor/Advocate program and a BA in Social Work.

Working at shelters and community agencies dedicated to supporting women at risk, Petrulis admits that she encounters an uphill battle in trying to get others to see the importance of these issues.

“Things don’t have to be like this and we can shape the society in which we live to be concerned about issues facing women and committed to taking action to address them.”


Strong female leadership is a step towards getting women’s voices heard, she said, adding that it is also necessary for women to mentor future female leaders. With this belief, Petrulis spearheaded the Be The One project through the YWCA Hamilton. Aimed at youth ages 16-24 years old, the project focuses on engaging youth in the topic of violence against women and girls, by creating various awareness campaigns. The two-year project was in partnership with the White Ribbon Campaign, the world’s largest movement involving men and boys to put an end to gender-based violence.

For Petrulis, youth are the solution and the key players in changing the course of discussion, while challenging preexisting gender stereotypes.

“Youth are the answer to many questions, including ‘how do we end violence against women and girls?’”

Through Be The One, Petrulis witnessed how youth use creative ways to advocate for women. One of the most successful youth-led projects was a t-shirt campaign, said Petrulis. A female participant of the project designed t-shirts printed with a powerful statement, “This is what a feminist looks like,” to raise awareness of the many facets of feminism. Three hundred t-shirts were sold.


Petrulis also sits on the Hamilton Positive Space Collaborative, a volunteer committee aimed to create and push for LGBTQ positive spaces in Hamilton.

“The agencies that sit around the table of this collaborative have a commitment and vested interest in advocating for and with LGBTQ communities and their allies,” said Petrulis, who represents the YWCA Hamilton on the committee. She is currently working on creating a Positive Space Checklist, as a way for local agencies to assess how safe and equitable their services are to the needs of LGBTQ users.

“The idea around this tool is to encourage and support organizations to look at their policies, procedures and agency climate from an LGBTQ-positive lens,” she added.

When she is not working, Petrulis enjoys photographing sights in the city and running, either in marathons or just for leisure. She hopes to continue her work at the Y, working alongside other female leaders in advocating and strengthening women’s rights and voices.