Mary Choy works as a Program Manager at Street Haven Learning Centre (a branch of Street Haven at the Crossroads), which provides educational and pre-employment programming for women facing homelessness, precarious housing, and concurrent challenges in downtown Toronto.
Prior to this, Choy had done everything from working with children and youth in remote, fly-in communities in Northern Ontario, to developing curriculum for employment-specific training programs, to teaching the GED to youth held in remand at detention centres. “It has been a process of learning through experience to discover what I enjoy and do not enjoy doing, while being driven by my own principles,” says Choy. Her experiences have cemented her commitment to contributing to a society where quality healthcare services, affordable and accessible housing, and opportunities for formal education can be accessed by all.
We caught up with Choy this week.
SDTC: Walk us through a typical day in your life.
MC: On a typical day, I wake up early and take a few moments to sit in silence while I gaze out of the window and drink my tea. I then rush out to catch the bus.
A day at work means balancing the administrative, case management, supervisory, financial, and performance management components of our Learning Centre. I enjoy this variety of responsibilities. At the office, my duties, among others, include developing program material, holding employment consultations with clients looking to receive support and advice in their job search, providing educational advice and referrals to learners building transferable reading, writing and math skills in our Literacy and Basic Skills program, meeting with program funders, and networking with potential community partners.
The instructors, facilitators and literacy tutors at the Street Haven Learning Centre provide excellent educational and pre-employment workshops, lessons, and support for women, many of whom face concurrent challenges of unstable housing, homelessness, and marginalization.
Outside of my work, I am still unpacking boxes and setting up my new apartment, having only recently moved into the city. When I am settled, I plan to resume guitar lessons, finish a large 6′ self-portrait I started when I was eighteen (during my Frida Kahlo phase), dance salsa and bachata, attend Anishnawbemowiin (Ojibway) language classes, and, really, make the most of returning to a large, diverse city.
What do you love most about your work?
I love the conversations with diverse women that I meet. Learning from them when they share their knowledge is the most enjoyable experience. The micro displays that show the connection you have made with someone, by receiving an unexpected greeting or smile, or when a learner comes to the office just to say hello, is what I enjoy most.
In this field, you are expected to “case manage” clients, but there are so many positive aspects of our program and service outcomes that are not measurable or quantitative: the reciprocal teaching and learning inside and outside the classroom, the building of trust and self-esteem, and the sense/strengthening of community. These are the things I like most about my work and which are often viewed as “secondary” to the statistics I often have to report on.
What attributes are important to have in this field?
So many skills and attributes are important to build when working in this field, and they’re part of an ongoing process of self-development when you’re engaged in community work. Continuous self-awareness and the desire and ability to be reflexive in your practice, thinking and interactions with all parties involved in the services you provide are important skills to foster and practice. Understand and be critical of the multiple discourses and trends in the field of social and community service work, and remain driven by your principles or commitment to a more transformative social change.
What advice do you have for other women starting out in this field?
Youth and young adults are often in a position where they must compete with many others to secure that first opportunity that offers them professional experience and fosters their career growth. They are vibrant, passionate and innovative. I recognize that the term of employment contracts are shaped by the funding provided to an organization; however, I would still urge employers to find ways to maintain secure, longer term employment, renew contracts for youth hired and value the skills they bring and the contributions they make to the organization.
For young women starting out in this field, don’t ever undervalue or understate the potential, skills, and talents you bring to the table. When I was working insecure and temporary contracts, I often felt [my skills] were not worthwhile. I realize now how transferable they are and that I have experience in a variety of fields. Don’t ever discount your personal or professional experiences, even if they were short term, and what you could bring to a new opportunity. With every new experience you gain new skills.
That said, break down your past professional, personal, and volunteer/community-based experiences and identify the skills you developed and successes you achieved to convince the employer how they will be transferable in a new position. Let your enthusiasm and initiative make you stand out from other candidates, as well as your drive to learn what is new. Opportunities you are offered are shaped by your past experiences, but if possible, apply to new positions or develop new skills through volunteer experiences that are outside of your field and that constantly challenge you.
Want to know more about Street Haven (and how you can help)? Visit here.