Building bridges in Victoria and around the world

Womens' support group helps with transition to new careers

Bridges for Women’s mentoring program co-ordinator Carrie Everett

It was by happy accident that Xinia Villanueva discovered Bridges for Women as she was looking for her doctor’s office in the same building.

That discovery would not only change her life, it has had far-reaching implications for women half a world away.

A native of Peru, Villanueva had been living and working in Greater Victoria for many years when illness threatened to force her retirement from a career in child care. When she found Bridges and met mentor Gwyneth Thompson, Villanueva’s life turned in an entirely new direction.

Bridges for Women has been delivering innovative employment training and supportive programs in Victoria for nearly 25 years, helping women recover from the devastating impact of violence or abuse.

For the past four years, its mentoring program has forged relationships between women like Villaneuva and Thompson, offered learning opportunities and exposed women to the career of their choice. Mentors help mentees pursue career paths, introduce them to professional networks and share job-search techniques.

“The program changed my life,” says Villanueva, whose match with Thompson is one of 65 since the program’s inception. “Gwyn wasn’t holding my hand through the program, she was walking beside me, and that gave me a sense of strength. And she has taught me how to have fun.”

Thompson, who recently retired to Victoria, wanted to get involved in her new community and meet new people; Bridges’ mentoring program worked beautifully.

“I am here to support Xinia. I’m not here to make up her mind, so she leads and I support her,” Thompson says. “When she gets stuck, we throw ideas around and see if she can get unstuck.”

Today, Villanueva is working to bring the program to Peru as “Puente a la Esperanza,” or Bridges to Hope. She plans to fundraise to bring two Peruvian women to Victoria to experience the program, then take that knowledge and experience back home to teach others.

“What I would like to see in Peru is exactly what Bridges is in Victoria,” she says. Coming through the program, “you get the feeling that you really have to pay it forward.”

It’s not the first time the Bridges program has shared its expertise internationally. In 2003, representatives of the organization were invited to Prague to help launch a similar program there, says Jan Bate, current executive director.

With funding in place to launch Bridges’ online component April 1, “there’s no reason we can’t go to all corners of the Earth,” Bate adds.

“When you heal the women, you heal the families and when you heal the families, you heal the communities.”

Bridges’ international exposure – and influence – is timely as the organization prepares for its International Women’s Day celebration and luncheon, March 8.

With a goal of raising $10,000 at this year’s event, themed “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures,” Bridges will welcome an anticipated 150 people to St. John’s Hall.

The gala will recognize the contributions of women to society and celebrate the work and successes of Bridges and the women who attend its programs. All funds raised will support programming at the community agency, which currently has a waitlist for its services.

Maureen Maloney, actively involved in international governance, dispute resolution and human rights projects in Southeast Asia, Iraq, China, Brazil, Guatemala and South Africa, will be the guest speaker. Tickets for the luncheon are $50, available from events@bridgesforwomen.ca or by calling 250-385-7410.

Bridges is also seeking new mentors. Visit www.bridgesforwomen.ca or call the above number for more information.

editor@oakbaynews.com

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