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Stories from Women's Support Programs

Welcoming Change and Feeling Connected During a Pandemic

During a time when isolation is at an all-time high, Shona* and Aliza* are two women who are thankful that they have a community through ACT’s women’s programming.

Shona first became an ACT service user in 2013. Since Shona shared her story for our 2018/19 Annual Report, she has welcomed two more grandchildren (becoming a grandmother to five grandchildren). She moved to Canada from Zimbabwe with her two children in 2008, seven years after she and her husband were diagnosed with HIV. Shortly after being diagnosed as HIV-positive, her husband passed away.

“Not being around my family this past year has not been easy,” said Shona. “At the start of the pandemic, I was feeling really down and did not want to do anything; not being able to attend women’s programming was hard because that’s my second family.”

On top of feeling isolated from her family and the loneliness of not being around her friends she’s made at ACT, it was also a financially challenging year. While she accesses Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), it was not enough to cover her bills.

When women’s programs at ACT started again virtually, Shona said it “took the loneliness away from my life.”

Shona recalls how happy she was when Savannah, one of ACT’s Women’s Programming Coordinators, started programming online. She looked forward to seeing the other women and to feeling connected again. Catching up and sharing laughs with one another, even though they were not physically in the same space was a welcomed change from the forced isolation caused by COVID-19.

“Some of the women are very lonely because they are living alone and don’t have family to lean on during this time,” explained Shona. “These groups are our home, our family; they are everything to us. We can share, teach and learn from each other and support one another.”

Having been an ACT service user for years, Shona has accessed the Tax Clinic, women’s programming and most recently, Employment ACTion, working with Employment Consultant Jason to improve her resume and interview skills.

“Accessing Employment ACTion virtually was difficult because I am used to doing things in-person,” said Shona. “But when COVID-19 started, I got on the phone with Jason, and he was very helpful and worked with me to improve my resume so I can apply for jobs.”

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Virtual programming overall started as a challenge for Shona, as she initially did not have access to a computer for the Zoom meetings and had to learn how to be more knowledgeable with technology. Luckily, “Savannah was very patient with me and with everyone else.”

“I remember when program started online, Savannah sent everyone gift cards to get groceries,” exclaimed Shona. “We all appreciated it because it has been so hard for everyone! Even during this pandemic, ACT thinks about the women, making sure we stay connected. I am so thankful of the work that ACT is doing, and it truly is my second home. When I attend programming at ACT, I know I am protected, I am safe, and I am free.”

These words are echoed by Aliza*, who signed up with women’s programming three years ago. However, it wasn’t until this year that she was able to truly get involved in the program.

“I was unable to attend programming before because I live far away and I have to take care of my three children; it’s sometimes difficult finding someone to take care of my kids,” said Aliza. “But since the pandemic began, my involvement with ACT has increased and I can access programming from the comfort of my own home and attend the meetings. It has been wonderful, and I am able to benefit from the support of the other women.”

Having moved from Nigeria with her husband and children in 2014, Aliza has struggled being herself because of her HIV status. She attributes that to the stigma that still exists both back home in Nigeria and here in Canada.

Fortunately, she was able to access the support she needed immediately after being diagnosed with HIV. In 2008, when she was eight weeks pregnant with her firstborn, she went for a check up and her doctor informed her she was HIV-positive. She was able to get the support she needed from her physician and was immediately linked to a social worker and access to HIV medication.

“There is still a lot of stigma outside of the HIV community. It’s hard for me to be public about my status,” said Aliza. “I remember when I was applying for my permanent residency and the receptionist disclosed my status to everyone in the waiting room and everyone started looking and treating me differently. It was awful!”

When Aliza started accessing programing, she registered when the ACT office was still located at the corner of Church and Carlton streets. After registration, she did not come back to ACT for programming. It just happens to coincide with her going back to school, coupled with it being a long commute for her.

But Aliza recalled meeting Grace (who has now stepped into her new role as Women’s Programming Coordinator, working alongside with Savannah) during her intake process at ACT. Aliza formed an immediate connection with Grace, who made her feel comfortable from the start. She said that Grace made her “feel welcome, respected and she made me feel like I am someone important.”

“I got a care package delivered to me by Savannah and Grace which made me so happy,” exclaimed Aliza. “The care packages were a big help to me and had products like masks, hygiene products and hand sanitizer; it was good to see them, even physically distanced, and to know that they want to make sure I am okay.”

Furthering her appreciation of ACT’s women’s programming, Aliza added, “When I attend ACT’s women’s programming, it makes me happy and lifts my spirit. I can sit down with my sisters, and we all share something wonderful together. We share a space that is calming and encouraging and brings smiles and happiness to our lives; the sisterhood and the community is important, especially during this time.

 *To maintain anonymity, both Shona and Aliza’s real names have been changed for this story.