Thursday, December 4, 2014

Volunteer Spotlight: Christina Stewart

“You can’t help but have an enormous amount of admiration for these women. Who better to represent the cause than someone who has that fierceness, that tenacity? Someone who continues to rebuild when everything has been stripped away” stated Christina Stewart with intention ablaze in her eyes. With an infectious energy and striking confidence, Christina’s undeniable passion for helping women is apparent when she shares her stories from her four year tenor at Dress for Success Vancouver.

What is your role at Dress for Success Vancouver?
I’m a Lead Consultant; I support other consultants, by making sure shifts run smoothly or I revoke issues with clients. If any consultant is faced with a difficult client, that’s when they pull me in to help them through that. An hour goes by really quickly and I don’t want anyone to ever think “this is an awful program” and evaluate every other program we have to offer based on a bad experience.

I support them with public speaking engagements where I inform different agencies (Immigrant Services Society, BCIT, etc.) about the services that Dress for Success Vancouver has to offer. I also built the volunteer training program and bootcamps for volunteers so that everyone is marching to the same drum. 

How did you get involved with the training program?
A year ago Jennifer wanted to start a training program and part of what I do for a living is training people. I just tried to set some parameters in the beginning. We now have an image consultant who comes in to lead the sessions. 

What is the outcome of the training program or bootcamp?
It provides consistency in how consultants are interacting with clients. Women from all walks of life come in. Some women have never held a job or are coming in from an abusive relationship. They have been second class citizens their whole lives so when we say ‘you deserve this hour’ women look at you like they’ve never seen themselves before. We make sure that everyone is treated the same way regardless of which area of life they’re coming from.

We remind our volunteers that everyone is an individual, so everyone is treated with compassion and in an individual manner. The Golden Rule is treat others how you want to be treated. The Platinum Rule is treat others how THEY want to be treated. That’s how we set up the program, dignity and respect come first.  

How did you get involved with Dress for Success Vancouver?
I was donating clothes to Dress for Success and I thought “this might be something I can be very good at.” I don’t do it for myself but to feel like I had a place in that person’s life, it completes you in some small way and reminds you to be grateful. There’s a real sense of fulfillment to be able to help someone down that path, especially when you’ve been very fortunate in your life and you forget to count your small blessings. 

Sometimes you get up in the morning and you’re having a bad hair day and it could be so much worse. It's such small concerns compared to not having a job, not knowing how to deal with an interview, not knowing how to take care of your children. A lot of women who come through the doors deal with that everyday.

Why Dress for Success Vancouver?
I raised boys and I have always been involved with different charities like the Variety Club, but being a single mom at a young age I was looking for something female oriented. I was going through University with a 2 year old, if there was a program like this for me my life would’ve been so much easier. 

I was hooked after my first shift, I felt so good about it. The people who come through the doors are genuine women who are looking for a change and we can certainly help given the opportunity. You effect change in women in one hour as long as they put that hour in. 

What do you find most fulfilling about working with Dress for Success Vancouver?
It crosses a lot of different things. Personally, it reminds me that no matter how bad of a day I’m having, things could be worse. It’s also the sense of well being that you get knowing that you helped someone feel that much better about themselves, and helping instil that confidence in them. 

Seeing the change you can effect in them with a few kind words. You see a woman come in with her shoulders hunched, she’s down on her self. When she leaves, she leaves with empowerment. I can feel it for a month. Just from a hug. She’s going to project that into her next interview. 

What's it like being a consultant?
We have to do a lot of listening when we’re there. If you’re listening with someone as a team, it’s not a one-sided effort. It’s a joint effort with you and the client. It’s a process. It’s not you telling them what to do. It’s you marrying what you feel is appropriate. 

Has this experience changed or inspired you in any way?
It has definitely made me more patient, it’s increased my ability to be empathetic and to understand. I’m a very A-type personality but it makes me slow down and consider other people. That’s not always something that we do. 

What is your biggest takeaway from the program?
You never know what a few kind words or how a smile can change someone’s day.

Any words of advice for someone going through a tough situation?
Don’t give up. Tomorrow is always a new day. A good sleep and a good cry usually fix everything. 
Always try to look at the bright side because no matter what, no matter how bad it is it could always be worse. Ask yourself where is that silver lining? 

Whatever happens it’s always a lesson. It might not always been a good lesson but it’s always a lesson. As long as we learn that lesson, something good has come out of it. 

Do you have any advice for the women going back into the job market?
Keep your strengths in mind. There are times we have to do things that we don’t want to do or it’s not the right fit but keep an open mind. If you have the luxury of picking and choosing, keep who you are and what you’re good at, then play with your strengths. 

What would you say to someone who feels like they don’t have strengths? 
We all have strengths. Sometimes we forget and it can be something as simple as being able to make someone feel good about themselves or make them laugh in the face of adversity. It’s a skill. Ask “what’s the one thing that I do that is special” because we all have that. Women need to cut themselves some slack.

Being kind to ourselves is hard especially if you’ve been beaten down by life. But if you’re not kind to yourself then no one else will be. It has to start with that self love. 

Do you have a favourite client success story that sticks out to you?
A woman who had an interview the next day showed up. She didn’t know she wasn’t suppose to bring her children. She had 3 boys that were 8, 5 and 18 months, and they were not well behaved. We said “you weren’t told not to bring your children, but this hour is about you. If you give us one solid hour you can change THEIR lives. You need to put this one hour in.” She came back 3 weeks later, had gotten a job and came back without the kids. She said “by giving you the hour, I’ve changed my kids lives.”

I started to cry because she listened. I know how difficult it is to raise children as a single mom but she gave us that hour, she can now take care of her children. That woman said “it’s because of you that I got the job. You made me feel so good when I walked out of there because I felt powerful & confident.” We aim to give that to every woman that walks in here. To give them personal power and to project everything that they are. When you tell someone that they look like a million dollars they feel it. Because they do look like a million dollars.

Why did this client affect you so much?
Because she truly heard the message. She was a difficult appointment; it was a last minute appointment, she was hard to size and there were so many odds stacked against this woman from getting a job. The fact that she took the time to listen to the advice that was worth the paper it was written on, It meant something to her. She took the advice and made it work for her. Just in that one little hour, it was a couple of heartfelt words that made a difference. 

Every week you are hit by one person who hits your soul, by a background story or they come back just to sit and talk because they know you generally work on a Thursday. Here was this woman who was having a bad day because she looks at you and she’s got tears in your eye and she just wants somebody to listen. It can be as short as 5 mins to be empathic because I haven’t walked a mile in her shoes and I can’t say I understand, but I can listen and sometimes thats all they need is for someone to sit in a non-judgemental role and listen. 

What is something we wouldn’t know about Dress for Success Vancouver?
They’re tracking the number of women who’ve gotten a job and come back for a second interview suiting. Almost 30% of the women who come in for one suiting end up getting a job and come in again. Even a 5% difference is a 5% difference. 

We’re best known for our dressing services but we have a fantastic career centre which is staffed by many volunteers from HR backgrounds. The services of the PWG are above and beyond is absolutely amazing. And its all free. We don’t get any government funding. 

What’s a common misconception about the organization?
That we’re just about interview suiting. We get woman in, put on an outfit and they’re out the door. There's a lot more to it. If you’ve ever dealt with a woman it’s not easy putting a woman in the outfit. It’s about making a woman feel comfortable and appropriate.

What’s the most difficult issue consultants deal with on a regular basis?
Body issue or the perception of who the woman is when they look in the mirror. When clothes don’t fit a woman they internalize that as ‘theres something wrong with my body.’ It’s not about the body, it’s about the clothes. So what if these don’t fit, it’s the clothes.

The biggest breakdown comes when they they look in mirror and don’t like what they see, and you have one hour to try and change that. We are not psychologists but the women most successful are good at reading people. They have an innate ability to cut through surface objections and get at the root of the problem. 

What would a client be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a grandmother, she’s 5. I was a single mom at 17 and I came from a family of haves. When I got pregnant at a young age and was made fully responsible and accountable it made me tough, but my life experience made me strong. There is a difference between the two.

You develop a toughness when the chips are against you because you have to climb out of the hole you’re in. The strength comes from the lessons you develop along the way. Sometimes you don’t have a choice but to fight but it’s better to be strong because you have longevity in strength. 

What do you like to do outside of volunteering?
I’m a Business Development Manager for AMEX and it’s a very very busy job. I love spending time with grand daughter. I use to be a skater at a national level, I sail, travel, paddle board! I don’t sit still. 

What would you like to see change, progress, or improve from DFS?
They’re working towards that now by monitoring the statistics. The leadership in place is taking a vision and putting a parameter around it by having everyone march to the same drum. They’re not just talking the talk, they’re walking the walk. We’re definitely moving in the right direction.

Communication has gotten substantially better. The seven dying words of any organization is “we’ve always done it this way.” We’re seeing a new executive director come in and move the organization forward and making it her own because she has a passion to make it her own. It’s not a job, it’s a passion. How could you now want to work with that?

Any last thoughts about Dress for Success Vancouver or the people involved?
Everyone who I’ve met has a real passion for being there. It’s not a sense of obligation, they’re there because they want to be. It’s a great organization that helps women and lifts them up. One woman came in and said “I can’t believe I’m here for a hand out.” It’s not hand out, it’s a hand up. What they choose to do with what we give them is up to them. But it’s a hand up.

What’s the difference between the two?
1. Hand out - it comes and it’s there and it’s easy.
2. Hand up - it isn’t an easy process because you have to deal with numerous issues, like a woman’s body issues. What’s the first thing you see when you look in the mirror? Everything that’s wrong with you. It’s about helping a women get over all that first and helping them understand that they're perfect exactly the way they are.

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