You don’t need biological ties to be a good mom, and these GTA women are proving it
By Lisa van de Geyn
Lots of neighbourhoods have “community moms”—women who care for local kids (and adults, for that matter), no biological relationship required. This month, we’re celebrating three such women, leaders who dedicate their time, energy and money to helping others. Meet fundraiser extraordinaire Laurie; Cyleta, who runs a homework club for kids; and Lynn, who helps women escape abuse.
Who: Laurie Brakeboer Where: Newmarket Background: Born in Toronto; spent 20 years working as an early childhood educator; moved into financial services; worked as a mortgage specialist until retirement last fall. Community involvement:100 Women Who Care York Region
Laurie Brakeboer first heard about the 100 Who Care movement at a business meeting and says she was immediately intrigued. The story goes like this: a mom in Michigan who worked for a family health centre was told about local women who, after having babies, would bring their wee ones home and lie them down in boxes, dresser drawers or on their own beds because they couldn’t afford cribs. (Not every baby made it through the first night.) She found out how many cribs were needed and figured $10,000 would cover it. She knew she couldn’t call 10 people and ask that they each write $1,000 cheques, but she decided to ask 100 women to each give $100.
Brakeboer brought the idea home to Newmarket in October 2015. “I knew after reading more about the giving circles that this would be a great way to give back and at the same time get to know more about the charities in our communities,” she says. Today the group meets four times a year. Each member signs a year-long commitment agreeing to give $100 at each meeting. Members can nominate local not-for-profit charities and at each meeting, they draw two to support. “Everyone loves knowing that their $100 donation becomes part of a donation now totalling more than $10,000 each quarter,” says Brakeboer.
At the York Region chapter’s first meeting, they raised $4,600 for Inn From the Cold, a shelter for people who are homeless or at-risk. Most recently, they donated $10,100 to the Character Community Foundation, which offers programs that promote positive character traits—like a hockey program for newcomer and low-income kids.
“No one person makes a decision, and every one of the 100 women have a say,” Brakeboer says. “To watch how this has grown and the friendships that I have developed makes me feel very lucky. I’m honoured to have been recognized for starting this group; I did it because I believed in it.”
Who: Cyleta Gibson-Sealy Where: Toronto Background: Born in Barbados; mother to two kids and four grandchildren; studied at Centennial College’s Child & Youth Work program. Community involvement: Beyond Academics Homework Club
At first, Cyleta Gibson-Sealy was just the lady who read books to children in the neighbourhood on her doorstep every evening. But it didn’t take long before the kids started asking her for homework help. “As the news spread, more students came. Soon I was assisting more than 10 students in my basement,” she says. Eventually, she had more kids than could comfortably fit in her home, so she asked Toronto Community Housing for space in a nearby highrise. They said yes, and even threw in some money for supplies. That was 13 years ago, and her homework program, Beyond Academics Homework Club, has been running ever since.
Gibson-Sealy, who received the Urban Heroes Award in the education category in 2011, says the club is an important part of the community. She provides a safe place for students, and she’s been known to work with parents, too, teaching them how to help their kids with their work. “There are students who require ongoing help and I feel great that I’m able to work with them. No one is turned away,” she says.
But this isn’t just a space for homework help. Gibson-Sealy’s kids get a hot snack and there are always group discussions about safety, communication and other topics. “The focus isn’t just academics. Students are taught to problem-solve through dialogue and empathy. We also study Black history year-round, for those who are interested, which makes the students feel good about themselves,” she says.
And Gibson-Sealy is humble about her work. More than a decade into the homework club, she sees a group of 15 to 20 kids daily—and she sees potential in everyone. “I remember one mother cried almost every day for a month because her six-year-old son could hardly hold a pencil and couldn’t read. I would laugh and tell her he’d be OK. Four years later, this kid is working above other students in his class. Every now and then his mom looks at him, smiles and says, ‘Ms. Sealy, remember when?’ And I just laugh.”
Who: Lynn Ward Where: Mississauga Background: Married with three kids; worked as a social worker, financial aid auditor and campus administrator. Community involvement:Armagh House
Back in 1991, Armagh House in Mississauga welcomed the first residents of a new program. One of six “second-stage,” or transitional, homes in Ontario, Armagh provided support for women who had left abusive relationships and helped them make plans for independent living. The first four years went off without a hitch—but then its government funding was pulled. “The next years were a challenge. With limited resources, services had to be reduced and much energy was spent to keep the organization afloat,” says Lynn Ward, the organization’s executive director. “But, like the women who come to us, we persevered and survived.”
Eventually government funding was renewed, supporters stuck around and new donors emerged. Ward says Armagh House, which is the only second-stage housing program in Peel Region, now offers more than 50 programs and services to residents, spanning health and well-being, legal and employment assistance and parenting workshops for grown-ups and counselling, transition support and activities for kids.
“Our work is deeply rooted in hope, compassion, commitment, dedication and understanding for every woman who has passed through our doors and the many others yet to come,” Ward says.
Armagh House has come a long way, but Ward’s work isn’t finished. “The statistics for violence against women remain high and the waiting list to get into Armagh is long,” she says. That’s why she presented an expansion project to regional councillors in January. Their goal is to help even more women—like one mother, who said Armagh helped her let go of all the pain and bitterness and make proper plans for her family’s future. Says Ward: “It’s about the impact on people’s lives, being able to drive positive change and being a voice for all who are unable to advocate for themselves.”