Celebrating The Strong, Powerful Women of SEIU Healthcare

Kavita Kandhai

kavita-2.jpgKavita Kandhai is a Tissue Recovery Coordinator at the Trillium Gift of Life Network. She also has a background as a registered nurse and a registered practical nurse. In her current role, she recovers tissues for the purpose of transplantation, which she finds highly rewarding.

“One tissue donation can help up to 75 people, so it’s a nice feeling to know that my work can help so many. I’ve seen both the sides, the people who donate the tissue and the people who are helped by it, and the whole process is very inspiring. Those people willing to give are the biggest heroes of all.”

Kavita’s and her colleagues at TGLN only recently joined SEIU Healthcare and are currently in the process of obtaining their first collective agreement. She sits on the bargaining committee to ensure that her colleagues get what they deserve.

“Being part of the bargaining committee ensures that as employees, we get the rights we need for our own health and wellbeing. I’m happy to lend my voice to advocate for my colleagues.”

While her colleagues may be new to SEIU Healthcare, Kavita is not. She was an SEIU Healthcare member when her career first started at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. It was there was she met fellow SEIU Healthcare Women’s Committee Member, Mina Amrith.

“Mina and I are both very passionate about empowering marginalized communities. We worked together on a couple projects in the past and have stayed in touch. It is great to be working on something together again.”

As a member of SEIU Healthcare’s Women’s Committee, Kavita hopes to use her platform to empower women of different communities to speak up for their own rights.

“The best way to make change is to empower those whose voices need to be heard. Too often people speak on behalf of other communities, but people also need to speak for themselves.”

Moving forward, Kavita hopes that she can set a positive example for young women, especially those who are minorities, like herself.

“I’ve experienced racism and genderism, so I know how that feels. We know that bad things happen and when they do, a lot of young girls and women feel stuck and don’t have the skills or tools to get out of that. I want to show those girls and women that they can do it and they are not alone. If my voice or actions can make a difference for just one woman or girl, it’s worth it.”

Vinette Forbes

Vinette-Forbes.jpgVinette Forbes is a personal support worker (PSW) at Gibson Long-Term Care in Toronto. While her union involvement is still growing, she has taken part in such events as Take a Kid Fishing Day, the annual Summer BBQ and SEIU Healthcare’s Black History Month Celebration.

As a Black woman who was born in Canada, Vinette has had her share of obstacles to overcome, but she feels lucky to have grown up in free and diverse country.

“I’ve lived in Canada my whole life, so I don’t really know what it’s like to be anywhere else, but from the stories I’ve heard from my family, I feel that I’ve lived a privileged life compared to what they’ve been through.”

When Vinette talks about her family, you can tell how much they mean to her by the change in her voice. Her family is originally from Jamaica and was moved to Canada by her grandfather who wanted to give his children a better life.

While the month of March is a great time for women to talk about other women who have inspired them and mentored them, Vinette wanted to recognize her grandfather as a crucial man in her upbringing.

“Without my grandfather, I wouldn’t be who I am today. He is someone who doesn’t give up and never takes no for an answer, even to this day. He’s almost 80 years old and has cancer, so you would think he would be slowing down, but he’s still working as a cleaner, which he’s been since coming to Canada. I am often reminded how I’m just as stubborn as he is.”

Vinette’s grandfather wasn’t the only family member who had a huge impact on her. With her father not always in the picture, it was her mother and grandmother who she credits for raising her.

“Growing up, my mom worked two jobs, so it was my grandmother who I spent the most time with. We have always been so close, and we love each other very much. She kept me very grounded as a young girl and I’ve been that way ever since.”

As a way of getting more involved, Vinette is now part of SEIU Healthcare’s Women’s Committee. At 26, she’s the youngest member of the committee, which is exciting for her.

“The other women on the committee are strong, powerful and smart women, so I’m really looking forward to learning from them. A lot of these women were the voice for my generation, which inspires me to be a voice for others. I’m usually a conservative person who keeps to herself, so being part of this committee is already an achievement. I’m looking forward to being a part of something bigger and making a difference for other women.”

Sylvie Davey

sylvie.jpgSylvie Davey is a personal support worker (PSW) at Elgin Manor in St. Thomas, where she’s worked for the past 15 years. It’s a job that means a lot to her.

“Being a PSW means caring for people, mostly seniors, who can no longer care for themselves. I always look at us as these resident’s extended family, especially since so many don’t have frequent visitors.”

Sylvie has also been the chief steward at her workplace for the past 12 years. Her union involvement started off small, first by becoming a steward and then by gradually getting involved in more and more union events, including the Leadership Academy. For Sylvie, it’s all about making an impact.

“I’m always someone who goes the extra mile and makes the extra effort; If I don’t do it, I don’t know if it will be done right. I am always trying to learn more so that I can achieve more. I love having all the answers and being the person that others come to when they need them.”

One of the motivations Sylvie uses to help others is her own personal story. When she was young, Sylvie experienced sexual violence, but when she came forward with what had happened, her father didn’t believe her.

“Those who go experience domestic and sexual violence need people they can come to and lean on. I want to increase my training in this area and become a strong support for my friends, coworkers, fellow union members and anyone else who may need someone to talk to or help them.”

As a woman in Canada, Sylvie still sees a lot of her peers struggling, especially those of different nationalities. As a member of SEIU Healthcare’s Women’s Committee, she hopes to be part of a movement that corrects that.

“As women, we need to find our strength and continue pushing forward for positive changes. We also need to be the role models that young women and girls can look up to. We are all daughters, mothers, sisters, aunts, and friends. Our youth are paying attention to what we are doing, so we have to make sure we are doing the right things for them.”

One of the women that Sylvie has looked up to since becoming involved with her union is SEIU Healthcare President Sharleen Stewart.

“The first time I ever did anything with the union was at a hotel in Markham. Sharleen got up on stage and spoke, and wow, I was so inspired; her words brought me to tears. She empowered me, and I instantly wanted to get more involved.”

Inspired by Sharleen and many other of her union sisters, Sylvie is ready to make an impact and be a positive role model for future generations.

“I have two teenage daughters and one son; they are the driving force for everything I do. I want to keep learning and growing so that I can pass that all down to them. The more our next generations knows, the more successful they will be, and it’s up to us to lead and teach them.”

Joyce Valentine

Joyce ValentineJoyce Valentine works in the dietary department at Gibson Long-Term Care in Toronto, where she also serves as a steward.

Joyce was born in Jamaica, where she lived until her 20s. While she is proud of her Jamaican culture, she has mixed memories of her time there.

“Growing up, I was part of the lower class; my family was poor. After my first year of high school, I moved to live with my aunt, where I was treated like Cinderella at the beginning of her fairy tale. I’d go to school, come home and work around the house. It wasn’t the most exciting time for me.”

Upon moving to Canada, Joyce’s passion for helping others, especially seniors, led her to work in healthcare. She also owns a restaurant in Toronto, which keeps her very busy seven days a week.

Joyce’s union involvement started a little over a year ago when she was encouraged to get more involved by her co-worker and fellow activist, Sophia Bent. Since then, she’s attended the Leadership Academy, participated in Purple Day and attended the International Women’s Day March earlier this month. She gives Sophia a lot of credit for her growth.

“When I came to work at Gibson Long-Term Care, Sophia, who is the chief steward there, really pushed me to get involved. She convinced me that I could do anything I wanted and encouraged me to fight for what I deserved. Before meeting Sophia, I felt that I was weak and couldn’t do things. That’s not who I am anymore, and I give Sophia a lot of credit for that.”

Sophia is not the only union sister that has inspired Joyce. At her first Leadership Academy Assembly, she got to hear Mina Amrith, who is the women’s representative on SEIU Healthcare’s executive board, tell her vision story.

“When I heard Mina speak, wow; I can’t even find the words to explain how she made me feel. I was so moved by her words. That strong woman, she’s been through a lot, and she made it. If she can make it through the obstacles that were put in front of her, then I can do anything. She has really been an inspiration to me.”

As Joyce continues to grow, powered by the inspiration from her two union sisters, she looks forward to one day being a mentor to other women.

“I want others to look at me and say ‘I want to be like Joyce: a proud, powerful woman.’ I am excited to keep growing and moving forward. I won’t be happy until I reach the top of the ladder, and even then, I’ll still believe I can go higher. When I look back at my teenage years, I’ve gone from that Cinderella girl cleaning her aunt’s house to who I am today; I’m proud of where I’ve come and I’m excited for where I’m going.”

Jessica Lepage

Jessica LepageJessica Lepage is a guest attendant at Chartwell Rosedale Retirement Residence, where she also serves as the chief steward.

Jessica’s first SEIU Healthcare experience came at Convention 2015 in Niagara Falls, where her perspective on being a woman underwent a drastic change.

“Before getting involved with my union, being a woman was just about following the rules and doing what I was told. As I started to get involved, I started to understand how suppressed women are, even in such a progressive country like Canada.”

As Jessica got more involved, she learned how to stand up for herself and other women. This empowered her to want to do more and make a difference.

“People say things are better today for women than they used to be, but that doesn’t mean things are equal or right, because they’re not. We need stand up and make our voices heard because if we don’t, we will continue to be supressed.”

Prior to getting involved, Jessica describes herself as a very shy person. She credits SEIU Healthcare, especially the Leadership Academy, for pushing her out of her comfort zone and allowing her to grow as a person.

“The more I learned about myself and the world in general, the more confident I became. Knowledge really is power. As the mother of two daughters, I need them to understand their value and worth so they can pass that on to their friends, coworkers, and future generations. Women are far too often perceived as lesser and I need them to know how untrue that is.”

Jessica is looking forward to the SEIU Healthcare Women’s Conference on March 24 in Toronto, where “Femtorship” will be a major theme. Jessica’s SEIU Healthcare mentors include President Sharleen Stewart, Deputy Chief of Staff Tyler Downey and executive board member Mina Amrith, the latter of whom has had the biggest impact on her.

“Mina has mentored me since day one. She made me look inside myself and understand that I’m worth a lot more than I always thought. Thanks to her, I now know that I was meant to do something more. I’m not sure what that is yet, but it’s going to involve helping people who maybe can’t help themselves. I want to be part of something that makes the world a better place.”

And while she may not know what her future will bring, she’s already making a difference in the present. Inspired by SEIU Healthcare’s feminine hygiene product drive last fall, Jessica identified another group that needed help: low-income seniors who required adult incontinence products. Each day, these seniors must choose between their own dignity and daily essentials like food and housing. To combat this, Jessica successfully collected donations from her workplace, the community and SEIU Healthcare staff, filling her backseat and trunk with products.

For Jessica, an effort like this is just the starting point of her potential.

“In the past, my life was about going to work, coming home and raising my kids; that was it. Today, I need so much more than that. I need to keep growing, and when I grow as much as I can in one situation, it’s time to move onto the next. I’m excited to see what my future holds and what I’m going to accomplish.”

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