Women “come back to life”

Jane LaVacca and Erika Klassen of Westview Christian Fellowship Photo: Courtesy S4W

Jane LaVacca and Erika Klassen of Westview Christian Fellowship
Photo: Courtesy S4W

Civic government funds church program

St. Catharines, Ont.

As a patron of the Women4Women drop-in program, Jane LaVacca recognized the feeling of being “defeated before you start” in other patrons. Soon, she not only began to volunteer with W4W and joined the church, but also rose to leadership and initiated a new program, Survival4Women (S4W), in 2012.

S4W is a small group program geared to the needs of women from the Queenston area (labelled by the city as lower-income) of St. Catharines, Ont. “These women are behind on day one” says LaVacca – monthly income often doesn’t cover rent, much less groceries, personal needs, or utilities.

“It’s a cycle,” she says. When a woman loses her job, her clothing becomes worn, her hair goes untrimmed – she cannot afford to look her best. “That makes it harder to find a new job.”

“S4W was the natural extension of Women4Women,” says outreach pastor Erika Klassen about Westview Christian Fellowship’s weekly drop-in programs. LaVacca’s “leadership abilities came out quickly,” says Klassen.

S4W teaches pre-employment skills in the Plentiful Pantry (mini-grocery store) and the thrift store. Participants sort, stock shelves, hang clothes, and create displays from the more than 20 bags of donated clothing received each week. Graduates are awarded a certificate of completion at the conclusion of the five-month program. The women then either move on or return as paid mentors.

Niagara Prosperity Initiative

In May 2012, Westview received a $115,000 grant to help the people in this (Queenston) area through the Niagara Prosperity Initiative (NPI).

“We are so blessed to have gained the trust of our community through the years of running W4W,” says Klassen. “We prioritize the needs of the women in our community over our own (i.e., church attendance). This has been noticed by many funding agencies, and we are so thankful for their support.”

Begun in 2008, NPI invests $1.5 million yearly to address poverty reduction initiatives in Niagara using a neighbourhood-based approach, says Sarah Pennisi, director of social assistance and employment opportunities for the Niagara region. A recent NPI meeting highlighted S4W as a positive example of effectively aiding people in a designated area. “NPI was intended to reduce poverty in specific neighbourhoods. Programs that have been established, like S4W, meet that need,” says Pennisi.

The grant provides LaVacca and her team time and money to devote to problem solving with each individual – returning to school to obtain a GED or college degree; obtaining full-time or part-time employment; or working on relational or medical issues.

“You figure out what you need to do to survive,” LaVacca tells new registrants: “We’ll help you get there.”

S4W meets three days a week, incorporating W4W’s weekly scheduled meeting into their time.

Life skills and job training

Westview also connected with Grantham MB Church, St. Catharines, Ont., to provide garden plots for S4W participants who wished to plant vegetables for their families. Grantham members brought time and expertise, teaching the ladies how to garden.

At the end of the season, Grantham mentors and S4W patrons gathered in the church kitchen to transform produce into salsa.

Women have the opportunity to earn a variety of certificates through places like Niagara Region’s Public Health and St. John Ambulance. “These courses give me the opportunity to work with the ladies and form solid opinions. It’s hard to give a work reference for someone you have never worked with,” admits LaVacca.

Spiritual Health and Balance

When four women filled with questions asked to be baptized at Westview, a weekly Bible study began called He Is My Freedom. LaVacca facilitated the study, making it available to all interested S4W and W4W participants.

She also started a six-week course on balance, covering physical, mental, financial, relationship, spiritual, and family health. Every topic involved a guest speaker from the community.

“I had to adjust my thinking and material to suit the women’s starting point,” says Westview lead pastor Victor Ratzlaff who facilitated the discussion on spiritual health. He scrambled to find common ground to communicate spiritual growth principles (his church vocabulary and middle-class assumptions didn’t resonate with the women) until he lit upon his love of gardening. “I picked up the nickname Pastor Produce, and I like it.”

Diversity

S4W has complete freedom to share the gospel with a diverse group of women. The government attaches no restrictions to the grant money as long as they continue to make their programs available to all people from all faiths.

“But why would we do anything else?” says LaVacca.

Klassen says, “Many of the women struggle with poverty, poor mental and/or physical health, isolation, and despair. To see women come ‘back to life’ and to find a place of belonging, acceptance, and friendship is worth it all.”

Stacey Weeks, Ontario correspondent

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