In some ways the classroom is typical. The basement room in the East Toronto Chinese Baptist Church in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, is fluorescent-lit. There’s a map of Canada and the world, and a whiteboard with the definition of “perimeter” written on it.
In many ways it’s not. The students eat openly in class and occasionally get up to pour themselves coffee or tea, which is available on a table in the corner. They’re around the same age as their teacher, 25-year-old Chara Benson, who stands at the whiteboard, wearing a loose, leopard-print blouse and black skinny jeans. And some of their kids are just upstairs, playing hide-and-seek with their two paid-for childcare providers.
Chara Benson teaches at the Role Model Moms program in Toronto.
The class environment spelled out.Student and mom, Victoria.
“Deborah invested $5,000 in an account that paid eight per cent simple annual interest,” Chara reads from the textbook.
Victoria, a mother of two, suggests a formula to try.
“Yes! Yes! What gave it away, Victoria?” Chara asks.
“It said interest and it asked how much money was returned,” she responds.
“Excellent detective skills,” says Chara. “Work it!”
Role Model Moms, a program created through a partnership between World Vision and Toronto City Mission, first launched in 2009 in Toronto’s Jane-Finch community. The success of that location inspired the two organizations to open the Scarborough venue. Childcare is provided to them for free, and the student moms get a chance to play with their kids during a break or to deke out of class if a child has had a fall or needs a diaper change. The moms aren’t penalized for coming late or for missing days because their children are sick. Whereas other parts of society have closed doors on these women who are struggling to finish school, find work and raise kids as often as single parents, Role Model Moms adjusts expectations and accommodates. The approach works. So far 45 women have achieved their General Education Development (GED) diploma through the Jane-Finch and Scarborough programs.
Classes run every weekday from 9:30 to 12:30, and Chara offers additional one-on-one tutoring on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. There are 15 moms enrolled in the Scarborough program, which is the maximum allowed, in order to keep class sizes small. At the end of each semester the students take their GED exam, which, if passed, is equivalent to a high school diploma. Typically, the women pass their GED requirements within two semesters over the course of one year.
Students Tylissa (left) and Samantha.
A General Education Development workbook.Kortney and her son, Josiah.
Most of the students dropped out of high school because they were pregnant, but others have secondary school degrees from other countries, such as Iran and Trinidad, that aren’t recognized in Canada, says Chara. For many it’s not the first time they’ve tried to go back to get their high school diploma, but this time it’s different.
“We’re used to being moms, so we’re already under a lot of pressure. This program gives us the opportunity to be in a comfortable setting, to just sprawl back,” says Tylissa, who has a 10- and eight-year-old in school and has previously tried other programs, home-schooling and the conventional high school system. Since all her classmates are young single mothers, she doesn’t feel judged. “You don’t feel like anybody is better than anybody.”
In addition to the supportive peer environment, there’s a marked difference in the teaching style, notes Daniela*, who had also attended various high school programs before starting at the Scarborough site. “If you ask Chara a question, she doesn’t make you feel stupid,” she says. Kortney, a redheaded 19-year-old mother to two-year-old Josiah, agrees. “If I don’t understand, [Chara] will explain it 50 different ways.”
Earning their high school diploma lets the students pursue post-secondary education and better job opportunities; it also helps them in their everyday lives. Samantha, a mother of three who is currently completing her law clerk degree (she was accepted into college after passing three of five GED subjects), says she uses the math she’s learning when budgeting and shopping.
Tylissa, meanwhile, loves being able to pass on the math tricks she’s learned to her children. “It’s been amazing to understand my kids’ work and to be able to help them,” she says.
During a lesson, Jahvana writes on a page propped against a whiteboard.
As many other moms echoed, the biggest benefit is being a role model for their own children. When I asked why she feels more motivated to get her GED this time, compared to previous attempts, Jahvana, who dreams of being a detective, credits her one-year-old. “I need to be able to show her that I finished high school,” she says.
Kortney puts it simply: “I just want to be better for Josiah.”
The morning is punctuated by laughter and squeals of encouragement from the students. When Kortney gets an answer right, she holds her fists up and cheers. When another student forgets to put a small “3” in an answer about volume, Tylissa suggests she remembers that 3-D objects need the 3.
At the end of the day’s lesson, Chara, as usual, poses a question: “What is one accomplishment that you want to do in life?”
“Go to Fiji!” Kortney calls out.
Tylissa talks about finishing her college degree and travelling alone. “I’m always with my kids, you know?”
“Take a trip to the store,” another student pipes in.
“Yeah, maybe I’ll take a trip to the store by myself,” Tylissa says, laughing.
Jahvana says she wants to work for the RCMP.
“And she didn’t say [just any] police force; she said R-C-M-P,” says Samantha, a proud smile spreading across her face.
The students in Role Model Moms support each other through more than just math problems. Every Monday, the moms stay after class for an hour-long session with Chara and another facilitator. It’s an opportunity to discuss everything from relationships to barriers they’re facing at work to spirituality. On a practical level, the discussion allows the moms to deal with emotional issues that get in the way of learning and reaching their goals.
“It helps get a lot of things off our chest. It helps clear our heads,” says Kortney. The youngest of the group, she says the other moms have helped her to be a better mother. “A lot of the girls have two kids that are older than my son,” she says, “so they give me advice like how to deal with not being with his dad or him in his terrible twos.”
Because the moms are so busy focusing on their kids, they often don’t get the chance to deal with their personal life stresses or past traumas. Many have survived abuse as children or teens. Daniela*, a mother of a two-year-old, was sexually abused by a relative when she was 12. “I stopped caring about myself or anything,” she says. “I would go to school just to see my friends, and skip classes.” Daniela, who is in her early 20s, is still dealing with the abuse, but was able to tell her mother about it a few years ago. She has also opened up to her fellow students as an abuse survivor. “Talking to Chara and the group made me realize there’s more to me than my secret past,” she explains. Having recently rediscovered her love for writing, drama and Spanish dance, Daniela now dreams of opening up her own studio.
Chara, who has had a student turn to her when she was beaten up by her boyfriend and another when facing an unplanned pregnancy, does “a lot of listening” in these sessions. She encourages “the girls,” as she calls them, to stand up for their beliefs and to think first of their own and their children’s lives. “There’s a God up there that wants to know all your troubles and he can help you,” she tells them.
Kortney and Josiah.
After the session, Kortney greets Josiah with her arms outstretched. The toddler looks up at her with his heartbreaking smile and bouncy curls, strawberry blonde like his mother’s. As Josiah propels himself forward on a plastic red car and is chased by the other kids, Kortney answers my questions about the program.
“We’re a little family, always laughing and joking about everything,” she says, punctuating her response with a “be careful” to her constantly-on-the-move two-year-old. When Josiah whimpers toward her after hurting his hand, she asks, “You want me to kiss it better?”
“Other one too?” Josiah requests, lifting up his other hand.
As to her hopes for his life, Kortney doesn’t hesitate. “I just want him to put in 110 per cent for everything. If he fails at something, I don’t want him to feel like he’s not good enough.”
That they’re good enough, and that they’re capable, is something many of the moms are discovering themselves.
“They’ve seen failures in their lives. People have let them down,” says Chara. “Now they’re rediscovering, ‘Okay, I have dreams and I can pursue those and these people are rooting for me.”
* * *
World Vision in Canada
World Vision Canada may be best known for its work around the globe, but the Christian humanitarian organization has had a programming presence in Canada since 1979. Today, World Vision Canada is active in six cities from Vancouver to Montreal, working with 87 non-profit and church partners.
“World Vision finds those grassroots community organizations that really want to grow in their impact,” says Hugh Brewster, national manager of the Canadian programs. “We invest in grassroots projects that work in low-income communities, as well as in the overall organizational capacity of these groups. We focus on helping them sustain and grow their impact for the future.”
When partnering with Toronto City Mission to launch Role Model Moms, for example, World Vision didn’t want to simply plunk a program down in a community—they wanted to ensure it was an appropriate way to respond to the community’s context. “Nobody likes to have development done to them,” says Brewster. “All of us want to have a voice in how we pursue our dreams”
That’s why World Vision assisted Toronto City Mission
in conducting a community assessment. The two partners brought together social workers, religious leaders, potential beneficiaries and community members to discuss opening a Role Model Moms project in their community. The two organizations wanted to answer the question “Is this what the community wants?” says Elliott Shin, director of programs at Toronto City Mission.
Through this discourse, the organizations determined which location would be most convenient for the women participating and what schedule would best accommodate their lives. The idea to provide daycare, meanwhile, came out of a World Vision-supported assessment in the Jane-Finch community. It became clear that not having a daycare option or having a subsidized daycare spot in another part of the city would be a barrier to attending the program.
In addition to conducting community assessments, World Vision works with partners to pilot programs. Shin adds that World Vision requires “a whole series of accountability models that we have to go through, first to get funding and second to maintain it—it’s very planned and strategic.”
*Name has been changed.
This article was published on June 27, 2014.