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Angela Husbands credits the Woodgreen project for giving her and her 11-year old daughter a second chance after she fled an abusive relationship. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Angela Husbands credits the Woodgreen project for giving her and her 11-year old daughter a second chance after she fled an abusive relationship. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

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Toronto program gives moms the gift of a fresh start Add to ...

For the two months she spent in an Ajax shelter, Angela Husbands didn’t speak with a soul. She couldn’t contemplate her future, either – how she might pick up the shards of her life and care for her five-year-old daughter.

Ms. Husbands was halfway through a degree in philosophy and English at University of Toronto when she met and fell in love with the wrong man. She wound up pregnant, and dropped out of school. The abuse began as verbal insults, then progressed to physical assaults. When the police came in the middle of the night, they advised her to leave, immediately. She took her daughter and fled.

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The shelter where she ended up was its own sort of hell. At one point, a crack addict tried to kidnap her daughter. It was no place to raise a child. “It was depressing. I was stuck,” says Ms. Husbands, 38, who is speaking publicly about her story for the first time.

That was seven years ago. Now she works full-time at IBM, where she supports financial-services clients, a permanent position with benefits. She’s planning her next trips to New York and Barbados to visit friends and family. She wakes up at 5 a.m. to box at the gym. She rollerblades and watches movies with her daughter, now 11.

A job readiness program unlike any other in Canada brought Ms. Husbands from there to here. Homeward Bound offers homeless single mothers, often with a history of abuse, the chance to get an education and obtain meaningful work.

And the benefits of that transformation have now been quantified for the first time. With a new group of mothers set to graduate from the program on Wednesday, a new assessment by Boston Consulting Group shows that for every dollar invested in the program, the return to society is nearly $4 – in improved health outcomes, reduced social-assistance payments and increased tax revenues as participants move from welfare to employment and self-sufficiency.

The results of the study, to be released this week, reflect the clear benefits to society of such an approach.

Since 2004, 154 women and about 180 children have gone through the four-year program, which is run by WoodGreen Community Services. Its success is leading other municipalities such as Halton to replicate it, and WoodGreen is now developing a toolkit so others in the country can adopt similar programs.

The program’s roots trace back more than a decade, stretching to Bay Street and as far as Dublin.

But it began with WoodGreen, one of the largest social service agencies in Toronto. The number of young children in city shelters was alarming, says WoodGreen CEO Brian Smith, “and if they were in the shelters when they were two, three, four… the youth we’d be dealing with when they were 13, 14, 15 on the streets would be having even more challenges,” he says.

They decided the best way to help these children would be to start with their mothers.

So Mr. Smith and Anne Babcock, the group’s chief operating officer, ran focus groups – asking women in shelters how they wound up there, and what they needed to move from dependence on social services to independence (a lack of child care was a big barrier). They studied models in Europe and the United States. And Mr. Smith went to Dublin, where a project was linking women on welfare with training and employers in the technology field. One thing made it different from typical government programs: the private sector was deeply involved.

They adapted and amplified the Irish model. Focusing strictly on training and employment opportunities wouldn’t work if the women had no one to care for their kids or no stable place to live. So they added child care and affordable housing, along with mentoring, financial counselling and internships. They didn’t want participants to wind up in basic, survival jobs. They wanted to launch them with new careers, and jobs that paid at least $40,000 a year.

And they didn’t want these women to work their way through school only to find no job after graduation. They made sure the college training was in fields where labour demand is higher, such as technology and business. And they reached out to industry partners, employers who would commit to helping find them work after graduation.

A big factor behind the success, organizers say, is a feeling of empowerment. The program is designed to help women get access to support – but they do the work, hitting the books, caring for their children, completing internships. “It is a huge amount of work for them to do,” says Mr. Smith. “We pull together a lot of resources, but they have to do heavy lifting.”

Pioneering hasn’t been easy. More than half of the women who began the program dropped out to addictions, scars from years of abuse or difficulties returning to school.

But outcomes have improved, dramatically, in recent years. About 80 per cent of participants are staying in the program, up from a 44-per-cent initial completion rate. Since Boston Consulting based its analysis on the first set of grads, it says the real economic benefits of the program are even higher than its report suggests.

The earliest big backers of the program was Ed Clark, CEO of Toronto-Dominion Bank, and his wife, Fran, who were looking for opportunities to invest in poverty reduction initiatives in the city. They kicked in $1.35-million to start and Mr. Clark continues to back the program as both an adviser and donor.

“When you go into hostels and hear their stories, these are incredibly brave people. But life didn’t go their way,” he says.

The program “has proven to be very successful in changing the trajectory for these participants,” says Nan DasGupta, a Boston Consulting partner who helped lead the research for the report, which was done pro bono. Her findings also show the employed grads in the program each generate $295,000 of cumulative new benefit to society over their lives and those of their kids. “It impacts not just the mother’s life, and it does so in a dramatic way, but also the children of the mother,” who now have greater odds of finishing high school.

Graduates are now in career-track positions such as law clerk, data management officer, and technical services analyst. The industry council, which includes all of the Big Five banks along with Dell, Xerox and some law firms, agree to provide internships and help landing jobs.

But success wasn’t accidental. It required constant tweaking – adding private tutoring sessions for kids, for example, to help them keep up in school – and adjustments, things that wouldn’t have been possible without private-sector involvement, says Mr. Clark. “The core idea that we had… is to take a group of women and, every time we find a barrier that prevents the transformation, we will remove it.”

For Ms. Husbands, who says she’s gone from “rock bottom” to secure independence, one of the best outcomes is that she can be a role model for her daughter – who has grown up seeing her mom brimming with confidence, reconnected with her family, graduating with honours and taking the GO Train to work.

“Some people,” she says, “just need to be given a chance.”

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