“Reflecting back over the past two years, I am overwhelmed thinking about the personal stories that were shared in the Strengthening the Spirit program, the tears that were shed, and the love and support that was given. It has truly been an honour and a privilege to be a part of it all.

I could tell countless stories about how this program has helped women to transform their lives.

One particular story is, unfortunately, not that uncommon on reserves. ‘Shelley’ was born into a home broken by violence, addiction, and abuse. She was sexually abused as a youth and entered into two long-term extremely abusive relationships. Both of her daughters committed suicide in their youth. She has lost countless family members in tragic deaths. Grief, loss, trauma, and pain have been a part of her life. When she shared her story in a support group offered by a local hospital, the group facilitator surprised her by asking: ‘How is it you are still alive?’

Before Shelley arrived at the Strengthening Our Spirit program, she had coped by abusing drugs, alcohol and sex. This program offered Shelly and other women in her community an opportunity to gather in a safe, non-judgmental, compassionate, and accepting space where they are encouraged to say whatever is in their hearts and minds. What makes the Strengthening Our Spirit circle so special is that it follows cultural teachings (smudge, prayer, stories and teachings from an Elder and even from other group members) as well as ‘western’ programming. The content is always directed by the women themselves. They discuss many things, including abuse, grief and loss, addiction, and the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. In time, with the support of the healing power of the circle, Shelly discovered her own courage and strength, which has led her to walk down a different path.

Shortly after Shelley completed the Strengthening Our Spirit program, she was talking to a counselor about women and self-esteem. He said to her: ‘Suppose I said you look really good today. What would you say?’ She looked him straight in the eye with a big smile on her face and simply said ‘Thank you.’ Stumped, he said, ‘That wasn’t what I was expecting!’ Shelley just laughed. I think she finds it validating to see how far she has journeyed and what she has accomplished.

It is exciting to hear Shelley so confidently accept a compliment. Despite everything she has been through, her sense of self-worth now shines through. She knows she has a purpose. She also knows she deserves to be treated with respect, and is willing to stand up for it.”

This story was excerpted from a program report submitted by Debra Chouinard, an Outreach Worker at the Mountain Rose Women’s Shelter.

The Strengthening the Spirit program is funded by the Canadian Women’s Foundation and delivered by the Mountain Rose Women’s Shelter in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta.