Story telling is a powerful way to open one’s eyes to our similarities and differences and help to understand the world we live in. It can teach empathy and even create positive change. Stories have the power to shape new perspectives and view the same experiences through new lenses.

I met Christina on a Thursday. I remember because it would be a day that will forever be imprinted in my memory. When I walked up to her door, with tea in hand, I had no idea what to expect. I was welcomed into her home, filled with family photos and happy memories. One wall was covered with awards, news clippings and a shiny framed degree. I could immediately feel it was a happy, loving home. I always say that meeting people and being given a chance to tell their stories is one of the best parts of my job. Hearing Christina’s story is just one reason why.

We sat down and started talking. The way Christina speaks so openly and positively about her experiences made me realize this quickly. She told me about her childhood, meeting her high school sweetheart and her three beautiful kids. She also told me that she faced racism, bullying and depression as a child and as an adult, experienced trauma, abuse, poverty and homelessness. Hearing her story, I learned about how all these experiences shaped her as a person, and not in the way you might think.

My story, with all of its challenges, have made me the strong person I am today. I wouldn’t change one thing

She articulately explained the feeling she had when fleeing her abuser (for the first time, and there were a few) and lived in a shelter with a toddler – how she knew all too well how it felt not to know where or when she might find her next meal. She regularly visited soup kitchens as it was the only way to feed her kids. She knew then, that she had to make a change and decided to pursue a college education even while living in a shelter. She was met with more challenges as funding options are limited for people in her situation.

She faced so many barriers and loopholes in the system, lost jobs due to these loopholes, and fell into a deep depression. Christina found that the system in place meant to help people has its limitations – this is where she learned the important skill of self-advocacy.

A new purpose

Christina found a new purpose in helping others like her. She began volunteering for a local meal program and found fulfillment in connecting her neighbours with valuable community programs until 2014 when she was diagnosed with cancer. Most of us would be crushed by this news, but Christina fought hard because she knew that she was the only caregiver her kids had. She wanted to be there for them, and be the best she could be. Throughout her health challenges, life at home was the same. Her partner was not going to change, so she made the decision to leave him behind – for good this time – for a fresh start.

Throughout her adult life, Christina faced hurdle after hurdle. Each one, seemingly gave her strength for the next. The game changer for Christina was her lowest point. After learning that the abuse she experienced had also been felt by one of her daughters – she hit rock bottom. She told me that learning this pushed her over the edge to the point that she contemplated suicide. “But, I knew that my biggest purpose on this earth was to be a mother to my kids” she said with a hand over her heart. She explained that feeling it beat in her chest grounded her. “I want to be a role model to them, someone to be proud of.” This realization gave her the strength once more, to start again. She checked herself into Safe Beds and finished her college degree from inside those walls.

She went on to tell me why she shares all of her experiences so openly. “Stories have power, whether it be a positive or a negative one, each one has the power to change someone. Every story plays a part in shaping your perspective and altering the lens in which you view the world. My story, with all of its challenges, have made me the strong person I am today. I wouldn’t change one thing.”

Power of positivity

Christina’s story changed my perspective. If someone who has faced abuse, poverty, homelessness and countless health challenges, can be this positive about life, I know each of us can too. Through all of these adversities Christina found community support to be her saving grace more than once. She now helps others who were just like her, connect to programs that can help them too. We know that support programs make a difference to people every day. United Way strategically invests in 126 programs that address all sorts of social issues, just like those Christina has faced throughout her life. We are proud to be able to support thousands of people in Niagara, each with their own story. It is because of support from the community that we can continue to do this every day.

I want to be a role model to them, someone to be proud of

I have most certainly missed many important details in Christina’s story, but I found that after meeting her, these were just part of it. I would never do it justice the way she can. You can read her entire story in her autobiography on Amazon (way to go Christina!) “Can’t Hold Me Down, I’m Wearing My Crown” which ‘tells the shockingly raw story of young love turned sour and the progression of an abusive 17-year relationship between high-school sweethearts.’

Stories let us share information in a way that creates an emotional connection. They help us to understand this information and can change the way we understand each other. Because stories create an emotional connection, we can gain a deeper understanding of other people’s experiences and form empathy. It is my hope that sharing stories of people whose lives have been changed by United Way supports, you will be changed too. After all, it is you, who makes this change possible.

Ashleigh Doyle