Furthering Gender Stereotypes? Me??

On the first day of school three of my girlfriends and I escaped for a simply decadent afternoon at the swimming pool. All morning as I packed lunches, checked book bags I had a silly grin on my face. I was looking forward to playing hooky with my friends. As my seven-year old daughter, Grace climbed in my SUV she spied my pool bag. She was completely perplexed. She questioned me as to why would the pool bag be in my car? Did  I not realize summer was over and school had started. When I explained that while she was at school I was retreating with my friends to the pool. Her expression was priceless. She was completely aghast that I would consider going to the pool without her. Today I was not only going to the pool without her but I was going to the pool while she was in school! Continue reading


Success Story - Women Supporting Women

This inspiring guest post is from Heather Stubbs who puts her work and life experience as a stage and concert performer to good use today as a speaker and presentation skills trainer. Here Heather shares the longer-term view of work she did with disabled young women…recounting the successes and joy!

Whatever your challenges, you have the potential to stand tall, glowing with the knowledge that you’re a worthy, valuable human being. That’s what’s happening for a group of young women I met nearly two years ago. They are all people who are supported by Community Living, an organization which helps connect people with intellectual disabilities into their community so that they can participate and be included as rightful citizens.

Community Living in Peterborough, Ontario received funding through a project initiated by the Ministry of the Status of Women Canada. Combining that project with the desire to raise CLP’s profile in the community, the Director of Operations, Barb Hiland, decided to embark on a series of public presentations in which women with intellectual disabilities would speak about themselves and their experiences and, ultimately, conduct presentations to the public about issues pertaining to women living with intellectual disabilities. Knowing there would be training required, Barb hired me to spend four coaching sessions with these young women. In Use Your Gifts, I wrote about how inspiring it was to work with these enthusiastic students.


Eight young women from the group carried on to become “Ambassadors” and leaders for the Status of Women and Community Living Peterborough. Take a look at some of their accomplishments. (What follows are not their real names.) Jenny gave a presentation at a Conference on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, speaking clearly and seriously; Cathy thanked a crowd of over 600 people at a fund raising activity. Christie won the Youth Award at Community Living Peterborough’s AGM for her contributions to increase awareness of women’s issues. Maggie speaks so well that she volunteered to do an interview for the local TV station. The interview publicized a Community Living event to which she donated one of her paintings. This week, Maggie has a photo shoot with a provincial magazine for an article on accessibility. She was chosen as a model from many across the province and will be paid significantly for her time.

Barb tells me that Linda is now a member of Community Living Peterborough’s Board of Directors and a member of People First, a self-advocacy group for people with intellectual disabilities. Barb has no doubt that she will be President of the Peterborough Chapter some day. She is on too many committees to remember, and she just shines!

These eight young women have conducted presentations all over the community – over 40 and counting! They carry their heads high and have all the confidence in the world to speak up to have others hear their voices. They are now mentoring another eight women to follow in their footsteps.

Meeting with the PM

Recently I received an email from Barb Hiland to update me on the latest accomplishments of my public speaking students. Barb said, “As the pinnacle of our goals, we hoped to go to Ottawa and see the Prime Minister to thank him for the funding and to tell him about all of the personal accomplishments these women have made to our community.” That dream came true in May of 2012, when four of the eight young women were well received by Prime Minister Steven Harper, as well as the Minister for the Status of Women, Rona Ambrose, and Peterborough’s MP, Dean Del Mastro. I have on my computer screen some photos of the event. I wish I could share them all with you, but I don’t have permission to publicize them. The one that particularly gives me goose bumps is of tall, willowy Jenny, formerly so shy, standing at full height, shaking hands firmly with the Prime Minster of Canada, and looking him squarely in the eye. What a transformation!

Training = Growth

Barb writes, “All the women have done exceptionally well. Their former teachers are ‘stunned’ at their growth and they never envisioned such a positive future for them. I think it was critical to have you come so early in the Project and teach the group about public speaking and the skills they needed to develop. It was our most intense topic for training, but well worth the investment. It had a huge impact on the young women’s development and ultimately, their success. Public speaking training instilled them with confidence, and as a result, the sky is the limit for their success.”

Do you find it challenging to speak in front of a group? When I think of the challenges these young women have overcome, I realize that the only thing that holds us back is what’s in our head. When we change our thinking, truly, the sky’s the limit!

Image from Freelance Folder

Related post by Heather G. Stubbs:  Use Your Gifts 



Women of power and woolly mammoths

Dr. Elaine Yarbrough is a long-time advocate for women. Her career includes over 25 years experience training, consulting, and mediating plus researching, speaking and promoting women and their power.

I had the privilege of participating in one of Elaine’s development sessions several years ago and still use what I learned. She has the unique gift of presenting challenging information in an engaging and low-key humorous way. (When a taxi driver told her that men were meant to lead since they were the hunters and women were the gatherers, Elaine told him she couldn’t recall the last time her husband shot a woolly mammoth for dinner!)

Some of Elaine’s priceless nuggets of wisdom for women everywhere to ponder, promote…and do:

Replace cat fights with support. Elaine believes that the cat fights for which women are infamous are “rooted in being chronically low-powered.” Without the power to fight those with more power, attacks are aimed at one another. Consider your behavior: Do you make catty comments about what another woman said or wore or did? Do you join in the office cat fights? Claim your personal power by stopping the personal attacks and support other women instead. Do business with them. Reinforce their comments in meetings. Know each other’s stories. Have each other’s backs. Support, don’t tear down.

Be motivated by accomplishment, not approval. Elaine sites early education research showing how women are socialized to seek approval. When a little girl correctly answers a question, the teacher responds with “good girl!” However, when a little boy responds correctly, the teacher asks additional probing questions to expand his thought processes. What a telling difference. Stop seeking approval for being a “good girl.”

Pushback when gender slurs come your way. Elaine quotes results from a political study showing that female candidate’s approval ratings went up when they challenged gender slurs directed at them. Approval ratings dropped for female candidates who didn’t pushback. As Elaine says, “start putting yourself up, not down.”

Women of power, it’s time to support one another, seek positive outcomes and toot your own horn!

Image from Emory University 

Divine Secrets of the Supportive Sisterhood

“It’s a dirty little secret among women that we don’t support one another,” says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Tripping the Prom Queen: The Truth About Women and Rivalry and professor of gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College.

The sweeping generality of Ms. Barash’s comment perturbed me (because the majority of my experiences with women have been positive), yet there’s a core of truth in her statement that unfortunately resonated based on stories many women have shared with me.

The statistics coming from her research troubled me even more:

- Over 90% of the women Ms. Barash interviewed admitted to envy and jealousy toward other women coloring their lives.

- 90% had observed competition in the workplace occurring primarily between women rather than between women and men.

- And, get this, 25% said that they had stolen a female friend’s husband, boyfriend or job!

Distressing for sure, but more to come…

Gail McGuire, chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Indiana University South Bend, authored an article “Intimate Work: A Typology of the Social Support That Workers Provide to Their Network Members.” This report contains the nasty little nugget: that once women are promoted, they aren’t likely to hire women to join them in the upper management ranks. This research puts quantitative data behind Ms. Barash’s claim about the dirty little secret. Yikes!

And more…

A 2007 Workplace Institute study found that of those who mistreat co-workers, women were more likely to target other women (71%), compared to men who bully other men (54%).

63% of 2,000 British women surveyed in 2009 reported that they preferred having a male boss.

Cue *the big sigh*

Bullying. Not helping. Competing. Under-cutting. Back-stabbing.

Disagree with me if you will, but, to me, these are behaviors of the chronically low-powered. Women who choose to make their mark, stake out their turf, and/or secure their standing by steam-rolling and/or belittling other women.

Cue *Kathryn and the Divine Secrets of the Supportive Sisterhood*

Kathryn, a woman who honors me with her friendship, has nailed the divine secrets of the supportive sisterhood. She gets what it takes to support her fellow women.

Secret #1 – Tell it straight-up: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Kathryn was a participant in a workshop I conducted late last year. Her post-session feedback was invaluable, both what I did well and where I could improve. Women supporting women want to see all women do well, so there’s no skipping over the constructive criticism to maintain “I-want-you-to-like-me” status or covering up an “I-secretly-want-to-see-you-fail” mindset.

Secret #2 – Open doors and make introductions.

Kathryn must have the longest speed dial and email lists around. She’s quick to facilitate connections or share a recommendation for where to go, what to see, who to meet. Relationships, alliances and coalitions are the new currency of the workplace. Building those bonds between and with other women can only help advance our general standing in business.

Secret #3 – Replace the cat suit with collaboration and recognition.

Having a little milk with your snarky cat chow comments serves no one well. Kathryn is known for her supportive remarks, notes and get-together suggestions. Cease with the catty comments which only fuel the image of Ms. Barash’s dirty little secret claim. Instead, learn the background stories of your female colleagues; be a safe harbor or a sounding board for them. We’re only as strong as our weakest link.

Secret #4 – Share freely what you know.

Kathryn is quick to share articles, access and/or information. Protecting your turf by hoarding knowledge or aggregating power doesn’t expand your sphere of influence…it limits it – with both the guys and the gals. Power with is the new starting point.

Secret #5 – Like yourself so you can like others.

For most of us, the inner critic is alive and well and oh-so-quick with the negative “you aren’t good enough, smart enough, thin enough, whatever enough” script. Embrace your own goodness…you’ve got lots of it. Be confident…look at all you’ve accomplished. Revel in your own uniqueness instead of wishing you were more like someone else.

Please do step into your positive power — and bring another woman along with you!

What other divine secrets will you add to the list?

 Image from US Women Connect



How a Simple Connection Sparked a Movement

Shark Marketing Co. CEO Shari Stauch has been involved in publishing, marketing and PR for 33 years. In 2004 she retired from the Women’s Pro Billiard Tour after a 20-year career as a touring pro player and marketer/co-creator of the tour to pursue development of Shark Marketing Co., serving authors and aspiring authors using their words to promote greater issues. She is a 5-time President’s Award recipient and was inducted into the Women’s Pro Billiard Association Hall of Fame in 2007. Shari is currently serving her second term as president of Charleston’s Center for Women, where she moderates the Women Writers Forum, and is co-director of programming for New Orleans’s Words & Music literary festival. She is a certified executive coach; an award-winning essayist and fiction writer; editor; and author of four non-fiction books. She is now completing a novel set in her hometown of Chicago.


Shari Stauch
Shari Stauch

When I first decided to narrow my marketing focus to work with clients with whom I shared a passion – authors – I had no idea what that would look like as a business model. It turned out to be the best decision I could have ever made. I enjoyed the work; and clients enjoyed learning how to promote their words.

Business grew and as it did, the majority of my clientele happened to be women. As it grew more, this clientele further defined itself into a dynamic group of savvy women who, unbeknownst to each other, were exposing deeper issues in their writing, issues that would resonate with the masses…

One author began blogging about animal rights, another about parents dealing with the loss of a child. Another is completing a novel that shines a light on the darkness of male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace. One is working on a memoir about coming into her own freedom of expression through dance, something that had been denied her in childhood. Yet another is aiding in the charge to end sex trafficking. And the list goes on… Not only was I loving my job, I was learning about so many important issues, and the influence these women were having, each in their own way striving to make our world better, just by speaking and writing and putting themselves out there.

Another of my long-standing clients, an amazing female author, Rosemary James, is co-founder of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society in New Orleans. Attending her conference one year (the fabulous Words & Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans), I was hooked. I’ve been to every conference since, soaking up the infused energy of the world’s greatest authors, editors and agents. Words & Music has become my shared passion, and so naturally I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, and encourage everyone who has an interest in words to attend.

And so I did. I suggested to several clients, including writers in Florida, California, Tennessee, New York and South Carolina, that they make the trip to New Orleans, both to support the great work Rosemary was doing for authors and to avail themselves of the opportunity to meet agents, editors, and some of the best writers producing work in this century. It would be a chance for them to network, but also to be inspired, so important for writers when writing is such a solitary art form.

When seven of them readily agreed to give it a go, I was excited for them. But that excitement quickly turned to anxiety. Would they have a good time? Would I be held accountable to make sure they had a good time? I had a lot to do there; would they feel less than cared for if I weren’t paying each enough attention? In short, what was I thinking?

Well, despite all my great experiences working with women through Charleston’s Center for Women and all these special clients, I greatly underestimated the power of women supporting women. By the end of the first day, I’d introduced each to the others. By the end of the second day they were sharing schedules and drinks and comparing critiques. On the third day we had dinner together and the women dubbed themselves “Seven Strong” with a hearty toast… each vowing to connect through their writing in the days and weeks to come.

Since that November conference, those proud members of the “Seven Strong” have forged bonds of steel. They’re planning a retreat at one’s vacation home in Folly Beach, and another at one’s cabin in Tahoe. In between they spend time on the phone and by email, through lunches and road trips, to connect with each other, critique each other’s work, brainstorm their marketing efforts, and encourage and nurture each other as writers and as women.

I’m as proud as any mother hen could be, but I can’t take the credit… It’s really all about that power that surges through women when we’re helping each other. Women supporting women isn’t just a concept; it’s a FORCE… and one to be reckoned with!


Women Supporting Women




Personal Branding: A Road to Self-Confidence and Personal Strength

Shauna Mackenzie Heathman is the owner and founder of Mackenzie Image Consulting, South Carolina’s only full-service image consulting firm, and the new Mark’d - Personal Branding Studio.  Shauna is certified by both the Association of Image Consultants International and the International Institute of Image Communications.
Shauna Mackenzie

Put yourself out there

The point is that because of this, it’s a scary, frightening concept to put ourselves out there.  So much so that this fear holds many people back from reaching their potential, from following their dreams, building relationships, or stepping outside their comfort zone for the betterment of their wellbeing or attaining their goals. My job as an image and personal branding consultant is to make sure the benefits of putting yourself out there outweigh the fear. 

One way my company works with clients is through appearance. Women are incredibly harsh on themselves. Even worse, they beat themselves up over beating themselves up. Most women are unhappy with their wardrobe and the way they look. Most of this boils down to limitations they face, for example, weight, finances, or lack of knowledge on how to dress,  and the dichotomy of wanting to be unique yet fearful of standing out. When we show clients how to dress for their personality, within their means, and in a way that accents their attributes, the fear starts to melt away. But it goes much deeper than this.

Working with one’s appearance certainly helps to boost one’s self-confidence because it has immediate effects. However, we also work with clients on body language, interpersonal relations, self-packaging, and personal branding. In my company, I specialize in working with soon-to-be entrepreneurs who have a passion but don’t know how to capitalize on it to make it a business and who are fearful of putting themselves out to the world.

Through personal branding, I help clients align their strengths and defining features with their brand and passion in a very strategic way. Since these clients are the face of their company, implementing an image strategy during the early stages of business is key to boosting confidence and credibility. Women have shared with me that through the personal branding process, they feel a sense of ease as their goals were more attainable and less overwhelming than they initially perceived. They have also shared with me that they felt empowered and inspired by the newfound confidence they had to be brave and follow their dreams.

A personal transformation

The best part about my job is watching this transformation as women overcome their fear to lead a happier and more fulfilling life. Sometimes it literally happens in front of my eyes as a woman stands at the mirror looking at herself. I’ve seen women go from slouched over with a disgusted look on their face as they stare at their reflection to standing taller, smiling, and even uttering the occasional, “Damn, I look good!”

To watch a woman take her dream and share it with the world is even more inspiring. Ironically, people already possess the strengths and skills to do so but it’s their fear of putting their face to it that often holds them back. It’s much easier to sit behind the scenes and try it out. If you fail, no big deal because no one knows it was you. There’s less risk involved because your personal credibility and reputation is not on the line. But to put your identity out there draws upon a unique form of courage that turns fear into fuel.  I am truly honored to be a part of this process.

No, we can’t change the thoughts of others, including the judgments they make about us. But as you already know, we have full control over the attitude we have about ourselves and what we do with these judgments. And it’s incredibly refreshing to know that if someone likes you or doesn’t like you, at least it’s based on the real you, the you you intend and want the world to see; not a façade or misperception.




Just Get Up and Lead

Today’s thought-provoking and compassionate guest article is by Deborah Costello. She’s a teacher, Math department chair at Trinity Prep School in Winter Park, FL and a consultant for the College Board. Connect with her on Twitter as @costelloland. Deb is passionate about human rights, peace, education, leadership, triathlon training, and most importantly family and friends. She believes that in the end all you need is love.


Deb Costello

Are you a leader?  Maybe you are a manager at work, an usher for your church, or the president of your bridge club.  Hopefully you are the leader in your own home.  Certainly you lead yourself.  Many people struggle with the idea of leadership and conclude they just cannot do it.  It’s too difficult or no one will want to follow them.  I would suggest that this is not true.  In fact there are leaders everywhere we look, people changing lives and making progress.  They are neighborhood watch captains and Girl Scout leaders, community treasurers, and PTA presidents.  But even if you don’t have a named position or a title, there are ways you can lead in your community that are meaningful and exciting, ways that enrich lives.  Let me tell the story of a pair of such leaders.

On Valentine’s Day I showed up in a field outside an art museum with a couple hundred people I didn’t know.  I had been invited by two women that I had met a few weeks earlier.  The event was called, “The Human Heart: An OUTright Love-In.”  Envisioned by Nicki Drumb four years ago, she and her wife, Rachel Gardiner sponsor this yearly Love-In to celebrate the strides that have been made over the past year toward marriage equality. 

As I walked toward the field, I was greeted by a friendly stranger handing out red necklaces made of hearts.  Another gave me a glow stick to combat the gathering darkness.  A third came forward saying, “Your face looks familiar.”  As we talked, she walked me down into the crowd.  I eventually saw a few people I knew, but mostly it was strangers — men, women, couples, children, families — gathering together to celebrate a simple idea.  Love.  That’s all it was about. Celebrating the beauty, the wonder, the joy of love. 

Photo of Rachel and Nicki by Mike Haddad

On the ground there was a giant heart, formed with candles, and we gathered there.  A few people spoke, detailing the year’s events, sharing their own stories.  Nicki and Rachel’s story helped me understand why people had come.  That afternoon they had made their annual pilgrimage to the county clerk’s office.  In the past they had tried to apply for a marriage license.  This year they were hoping to have their existing license recognized, for they had recently married in New York City.  They brought the pastor of their church and stood before the same clerk again this year, but her answer was the same.  No.  The state of Florida does not recognize same-sex marriages.   This year the clerk mentioned that she would retire in five years.  Rachel hopes they won’t still be visiting the county clerk in five years.  Despite four years of rejection, she is hopeful.  You can see it in her eyes. 

As we lit the candles, one from another, and stood together forming a heart, I looked at the faces around me.  There were no protestors shouting, no anger or frustration at what had not been accomplished.  There was only a feeling of gathering strength, of bearing witness to love and knowing that the year to come would bring progress and setbacks, good news and bad.  But no matter what, we would withstand it all and there was great cause for hope.  These two women had led us all to this place and for a moment we stilled our stress and our sorrow, our too much and not enough.  For a few moments we stood together, in love.

Rachel and Nicki are committed to each other and to helping others find the love that they so generously share.  So they keep on.  Each year the event grows a little bigger and more complicated.  This year they included art submissions from local artists on the subject of love.  We met afterward to support a local bar and a food truck outside that had provided a delicious feast.  It seemed so simple from the outside, but I know there were a thousand details.  Maybe this event doesn’t seem all that amazing.  If so, then here’s your challenge.  See if you can inspire a couple hundred people to show up in a field on Valentine’s Day and listen to you speak.

In the end, that’s all leadership really is, a little idea, a little commitment, a little hard work, a little time.  There are so many ways that we could lead in our communities, our neighborhoods, our businesses.  Everyday people do amazing things.  Every day we all could do amazing things.  And yet we don’t.  Too busy.  Too tired.  Just too. 

So if you are in that “too” camp and just can’t imagine a way to lead, start thinking.   A good leader is a combination of three simple things; ability, integrity, and compassion.  In some areas of our lives, each of us is all of these things.  I’m asking you to dig into your heart, where your love lies, where your passions lie, and ask some simple questions.

What can I do?  Can you share your ability and make a difference for someone else?  Do you see a problem in your community that you could help solve?  Are there needs in your neighborhood that are not being met?  I find it impossible to believe that you do not see these things in the world.

Do I believe in my idea with all my heart?  Can you support it and stand by it with honor?  Do you know that by leading in this way you are making a difference?  Can you stand up for what you believe and stick with it even in tough times?  Are you true to your word?  There’s your integrity. 

Am I making things better?  Will other people’s lives get better?  Will you improve your community, raise awareness, offer opportunity, bring people together, or promote understanding?  By leading with compassion, others will want to join you.  We all long for a better place. 

Nicki and Rachel have this incredible capacity to love and by sharing it in this way, have led others to a better day, a positive place where they can peacefully share a moment of compassion and love.  Their community leadership inspired others to join them on Valentine’s Day.  They were able to support local artists and businesses.  Their event inspired me to tell their story.  Perhaps it will inspire you to do a little leading for the Girl Scouts, to share your abilities with the neighborhood watch, to offer your compassion at the PTA meeting, to show your integrity as the community treasurer. 

In the end, we are all surrounded by leadership.  The best leaders have the ability to turn a difficult any day into an amazing every day.  Just get up and lead.



Women Supporting Women: Center for Women

In our continuing Women Supporting Women series, we’re delighted to share a post from Jennet Robinson Alterman, Executive Director for the Charleston, SC Center for Women. Jennet and her wonderful C4W team provide opportunities everyday for women to learn, lead and succeed.
Jennet Alterman

I’m Jennet Robinson Alterman; and as I like to say, I have the best job in Charleston, SC. I’m the Executive Director for the Center for Women, the only comprehensive women’s development center in South Carolina. The Center for Women is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization, and our mission is to make personal and professional success an everyday event for women in the Lowcountry and across the state.

I’ve worked in television broadcasting, state and federal government – where I experienced firsthand the difficulties that the few women in the legislature had in being accepted as equals – and the nonprofit sector.  I have extensive background in international development having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan, Peace Corps Country Director in Swaziland and the Interagency Coordinator for Peace Corps worldwide.

During my tenure with the Peace Corps, I worked on projects in over 40 countries, and saw firsthand over and over again that where women are disenfranchised the overall economic and social health of a country is adversely affected. 

The Center for Women helps women succeed every day by:

  • connecting thousands of women across the Tri-County area to professional sources for practical help by providing educational programs on important issues such as small business development (our new South Carolina Women’s Business Center), financial literacy, life transitions, leadership development, multiculturalism, family issues, career and business.
  • providing counseling, peer support groups and referrals. 
  • creating a network for women to come together and address the issues in their lives. One thing we know for sure is that women deserve equal pay and equal rights.  

The Center has helped hundreds of women start their own businesses, and through our microloan and coaching programs we’re helping women to create jobs and/or find one.  In 2011 the Center conducted over 110 programs and events, and reached 6,000 women, bringing the total of women we’ve touched since the Center was founded in 1990 to 70,000.

In 2006 the Center was recognized nationally by Oprah Winfrey with an Oprah’s Angel Network Grant. The Center was honored locally in 2009 with the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce 1773 award for the Public/Nonprofit Sector.

The Center is focused on opening up and maintaining an ongoing dialogue about women and power. I encourage my sisters in this community to take their rightful place at the public policy and boardroom tables.

As Nicholas D. Kristof (who will be the guest of the Center on March 22, 2012) and Sheryl WuDunn wrote in Half the Sky, the great moral imperative of the 19th century was the abolition of slavery, in the 20th century it was the end of totalitarianism, and in the 21st century it is women’s rights. I want to be a powerful force in achieving that moral imperative, and I want lots of company doing it.  



Women Supporting Women: Use Your Gifts

This inspiring guest post is from Heather Stubbs who puts her work and life experience as a stage and concert performer to good use today as a speaker and presentation skills trainer. Here Heather describes some recent work she has done with disabled young women…what a joyful story of hope and helping!

Heather Stubbs

Most people perform everyday tasks with barely a second thought. For people living with an intellectual disability, tasks such as cleaning, shopping, cooking and using a public transportation system are serious challenges. Community Living is an organization that teaches people with intellectual disabilities to meet these challenges, helping them integrate into the larger community and achieve a level of independence.

The Peterborough, Ontario, branch of Community Living plans to raise its profile and educate the public about its work. Knowing that good speaking skills are vital for getting a message across, the administrators engaged me to help prepare their “Ambassadors” for the upcoming presentations. I will spend an hour and a half with each of two very different groups over four Thursdays. The speakers will include not only the members of Community Living Peterborough’s Ambassadors (staff and Members), but also the self-advocate leaders of the “Young Women’s Group.” These are women, mostly in their twenties, with varying degrees and types of intellectual disabilities. I fell in love with them from the first moment!

Several outstanding qualities showed immediately in everyone in the group. Without exception, every woman was utterly herself. Some are shy, some are outgoing, but, unlike people with greater intellectual capacity, who sometimes try to project an image of how they want to be seen, these women are not trying to be anything but who they genuinely are. How refreshing to know that the person you are talking to is the one who’s really there! It’s lovely to watch how consistently good natured and supportive of one another these special women are. They know they all face the same challenges, and they understand the value of encouragement. Would that we all had such understanding!

Our first session centred on standing with good posture and looking people in the eye. Making direct eye contact is noticeably difficult for most people with intellectual disabilities. We worked in two groups of four, and each participant met eyes with one other member of her group and said, “Hello, my name is So-and-so.” With no input from me, the women expanded their statements to include telling something they liked. Graduating from the small groups to the full group, we did some pretending. “What would your face and body look like if you felt really sure of yourself speaking to the group? Would you smile?” Most of the women discovered they could stand tall in front of the group, smile and say their name and something they liked.

This was new territory for these people. Even though they had never done anything like this before, they were willing to expand their vision of what they were capable of. Most of them were able to gather their courage and explore the new skill of speaking to a group. Please bear in mind that some of these women have difficulty forming words at all!

For me, focusing on giving enjoyment to the audience instead of getting their approval was a huge factor in eliminating the fear of being onstage. For my second session with the Women’s Group, I wanted to go further in building their self-confidence, so I got them doing role play. The idea of giving to an audience was a bit too abstract at first, so they worked in pairs, pretending to give each other an actual gift. I emphasized that when they speak to an audience what they give is their friendliness.

The women have a tremendous sense of fun, and there was a good deal of laughing and horsing around during this session. The fun worked its magic, though. In the first session, two women were so shy they could not say their name in front of the whole group, although these were all friends they knew well. Even with encouragement, they simply would not do it. This time, one of them stood up, said her name, and said that she spoke for Community Living and the Status of Women Canada, and that Community Living helped her meet everyday challenges. The other needed the support of a friend standing beside her, but she did speak to the whole group. Not only that, but both of them enjoyed the experience so much, they each did it two more times, faces beaming, and speaking more firmly and clearly each time.

Truly, these are miracles! I feel honoured to have been present for them. We have two more sessions to go. I’m enjoying working with both groups, but it’s the members of the “Women’s Group” who fill me with joy. How thrilling it is to see their willingness to stretch themselves and explore new experiences! Their courage and openness stand as inspiration to those of us blessed with full capacities. Let us, like them, use fully whatever gifts we have been given.