From Afghan to Ukrainian, and from building a resume to taking a yoga class, women who join one of CMHA Toronto’s multi-cultural women’s wellness groups are sure to find something of interest and value – delivered for them, with them and often by them. This program is made possible thanks to funding from the United Way of Greater Toronto.
Multicultural women’s wellness groups have been available through partnerships between CMHA Toronto and various community agencies for more than a dozen years. Since the pandemic, however, organizers have been able to reach more people and engage more guest speakers than ever before.
“COVID brought lots of negative things,” said Maithily Uthayasangar, who coordinates the program for CMHA Toronto and facilitates a Tamil women’s group for people who are experiencing or have experienced mental health challenges. But, she adds, “it brought lots of good things too. We were able to connect with people who are housebound [and those] who have physical disabilities. One day I saw nurses in the background and realized somebody had joined our Zoom call from their hospital bed!”
Maithily explains that the Tamil women’s group was the first to go online, but others soon followed. “We taught each woman in our group the technology. Most didn’t know anything but email or how to watch YouTube videos. But now we have women super-smart in Zoom, we have women talking to each other in chat. Within a week or two we had Zoom, a WhatsApp group, and our Facebook group. We didn’t feel like we were disconnected at all.”
Facilitators from CMHA Toronto or, more usually, from the partner agency and trained by CMHA Toronto, will organize guest speakers and lead a discussion. The purpose behind CMHA Toronto’s involvement is to add the mental health promotion and prevention layer, an important consideration for women who may be isolated by language or culture, or whose communities may stigmatize mental health issues and support-seeking.
“Women are empowered to build their own resilience,” said Program Manager Laura Monastero. “The whole idea is to introduce them to resources that they may not know are out there and are free. It gives women a chance to talk about how they're feeling and to check in with people. And it helps build capacity within some of the settlement services and community organizations who don't have mental health staff.”
A breadth of topics to suit the wide-ranging need
The topics discussed in each group are as wide-ranging as the interests of the women themselves.
“For newcomers, we connect them with whatever is their next step, whether it’s education, social services, disability or employment benefits, resources for their children, how to choose a school and so on,” Maithily said. For younger women or those looking to get into the workforce, groups will offer resume building, mock interview practice, and other job-seeking supports. For others, often older women, the focus is on engagement and community-building through recreational and special interest topics like chair yoga, cooking demonstrations, or crafts like knitting and painting.
COVID brought changes
When the pandemic started, most groups naturally had COVID-19 top of mind. However, as Maithily points out, the focus of the groups soon moved away from providing information about the virus, where to seek vaccinations, or how to avoid contracting it. That work was already being done by Toronto Public Health, other groups, and the media.
Instead, Maithily encouraged groups to focus on ways to cope with pandemic-related stress and “how to take care of ourselves, increase our immunity, and prevent illness. Every culture has different home remedies. We encouraged people to talk to their parents, talk to their grandparents ... and then talk to each other about these things,” said Maithily. Guest speakers were invited to present topics like Pranayama breathing techniques and mindfulness meditation.
During the trying early days of the pandemic, the groups offered women a caring community and a shared sense of purpose.
“We gave them hope. We reminded them that we have survived, we are here, and every day we can show our gratitude,” Maithily said.
Most groups set up a buddy calling system to help women connect with each other during lockdowns and to alleviate some of the isolation and anxiety people were feeling. This gave women a great sense of empowerment, said Maithily: “Women felt good being able to be the one to give others hope. Like a mother: whenever you need to support your children, you get the power from somewhere. Same for these women. They told me that they felt powerful. Tamil, Spanish, Afghan, Russian … almost every group was checking in with all its members through a buddy calling system. It gave people courage themselves, being able to help and support one another in their community.”
Capacity-building for partner agencies ensures sustainability
Groups are started when the need emerges and often in response to current events in women’s countries of origin. “It starts with the needs of a group and when it seems women need more support,” explains Maithily. For example, the Afghan women’s group started during the intensification of the war in Afghanistan, and similar for Farsi women. With the recent emergence of war in Ukraine, CMHA Toronto helped establish a Ukrainian women’s group. New groups for Tagalog and Mandarin speakers and for several African languages and cultures are on the way.
Maithily always has her eye on sustainability. “We want to know that the group can survive without us. I always tell people, even if I'm not there, the group should be able to go on. That is a sign of success, and something I can be proud about.”
One of the keys to sustainability and a reason the CMHA Toronto team can make groups happen quickly is the ‘train the trainer’ model they use for facilitators. This not only builds capacity in the partnering agency and longevity of the groups, but also provides leadership opportunities for the women involved.
“I always tell facilitators, find the born leaders in your group. If you're sick or on vacation, they will be able to step in for you. Our volunteer facilitators identify one or two people who can take care of their role should they be away,” Maithily explains. These women are invited to be trained along with the agency representatives.
“Women are empowered to build their own resilience, …talk about how they're feeling and check in with people. And it helps build capacity within some of the settlement services and community organizations who don't have mental health staff.”
High profile engagement during the pandemic
Some of the biggest successes occurred during the pandemic, when Maithily says that they had up to 300 women online for some Zoom meetings. High-profile guest presenters helped drive this attendance. “Because it was on Zoom, we were able to bring in very famous people. Singers, directors, actors, scholars, and authors from India, from Sri Lanka, from all over,” Maithily said.
Maithily says that these guests were interested in contributing during the harrowing early days of the pandemic, when people were afraid, stuck at home, and looking for ways to connect and be of service to others. They waived their speaking fees for the opportunity to give back to others in their country’s diaspora community. “Everybody was trying to find their humanity at that time,” Maithily said.
Many groups are returning to in-person sessions, but Maithily reports that they are continuing with online groups because of the added reach it offers and the ability to engage speakers from anywhere in the world.
There are now 15 groups delivered in partnership with agencies that include Malvern Family Resource Centre, Afghan Women’s Organization, South Asian Women’s Centre, and the Scarborough Health Network, among many others, each of which attracts between 50 and 300 women to each session. Multiply that by the 12-plus years these groups have been running and you get massive reach with a very modest investment: an ever-expanding village of support for women of all ages and ethnicities in the world’s most multicultural city.