Fighting for freedom

January 12, 2022


After years of hiding her trauma, a donor-supported agency helped Gillian find healing, health, and hope



Help change lives like Gillian’s in Winnipeg now.

Content warning: sexual abuse and suicide

Maybe it was sheer will. Or maybe it was fear. Whatever was fuelling 21-year-old Gillian to get the help she needed, she fought hard to find it.

Gillian was in high school when a slew of warning signs alerted her that something was wrong. Night terrors disrupted her sleep while panic attacks intruded on her during the day.

Gradually, her grades began to suffer. So did her relationships and mental health.

“My life kind of felt like it was going downhill,” Gillian shared. “I started self-harming. I just didn’t want to be alive anymore.”

Feeling hopeless and alone, Gillian mustered the strength to see her doctor. Bravely, she disclosed a tragic family secret: she’d been sexually abused as a child—in her own home.

“My parents knew, and they never got me help,” explained Gillian. “They weren’t very supportive and didn’t understand mental health. So, I had to get help on my own.”


“I knew the problems inside me weren’t going away. I wanted more for myself. I wanted a better future.” Photo: BRETT GUNDLOCK


Manitoba has the highest prevalence of child abuse out of all Canadian provinces.

Nearly a third of Canadians have experienced some form of child abuse, putting them at a higher risk of developing mental illness later in life. Depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation are all strongly linked with this devastating childhood experience.

After a series of evaluations, Gillian’s doctor referred her to Heartwood Healing Centre (formerly The Laurel Centre)—a United Way Winnipeg donor-supported agency offering counselling and support to people who have experienced childhood or adolescent sexual abuse.

While on the waitlist for one-on-one counselling, Gillian gained a vital sense of community in group therapy sessions. After so many years of hiding, she felt much less alone hearing other survivors share their stories in a safe, caring, and non-judgmental environment.

Founded in 1985, Heartwood Healing Centre (formerly The Laurel Centre) has gained recognition across the country for its unique contribution to women’s health.


“It wasn’t easy,” Gillian noted. After all, processing years of unresolved trauma and its complex, long-term effects demands so much energy and effort.

Even just making it to her appointments was its own challenge. Every week, Gillian would have to use a bit of vacation time to leave work early for therapy. Then, she’d have to return home—to the very place she’d been abused as a child.

“Honestly, it would’ve been easier not to go [to therapy] and just stay in that negative space,” said Gillian. “But I didn’t want that for my life.”

So, despite all the obstacles, Gillian fought for her healing, her well-being, her future. And after many months of working through her pain with her therapist, things started to change.

“My counsellor was just amazing … She’s really changed my life.”

Gradually, Gillian stopped hating herself and her body. She learned how to manage her anxiety, build healthier relationships, and show herself kindness and love. With the support of her therapist, she even moved out of her parents’ home so she wouldn’t have to relive her trauma every day.

“My counsellor was just amazing,” said Gillian. “She’s probably the person I look up to the most. She’s really changed my life.”

It also made a huge difference for Gillian that all services were free of charge, thanks to the kindness of United Way Winnipeg donors.

“I couldn’t afford to pay for university and therapy, plus all my other bills, so it meant so much to have such an accessible resource like Heartwood Healing Centre,” Gillian expressed.

“Heartwood Healing Centre is where I gained all of my strength, self-worth, and love for myself.” Photo: BRETT GUNDLOCK


Another critical step of Gillian’s journey was an undertaking she couldn’t imagine doing on her own: proceeding with legal action.

For many survivors, navigating legal and criminal justice systems can be stressful and intimidating. Often, these systems lack a trauma-informed lens, putting survivors at risk for being re-traumatized. These are a few of the many reasons why over 80% of survivors never report their abuse in the first place.

Deeply aware of these challenges, Heartwood Healing Centre offers support and advocacy to help guide survivors through such complex systems.

“We help our clients make an informed decision around pressing charges,” explained Heather Leeman, Executive Director at Heartwood Healing Centre. “For some, it can be empowering and helpful in moving forward; for others, it can push them a step back in their healing.”

“I honestly don’t know where I’d be without Heartwood Healing Centre.”

Gillian knew it was something she needed to do. With a tremendous amount of courage and Heartwood Healing Centre’s support, she reported her abuse to the police and decided to press charges.

“I went to court for the hearing and had to read a victim impact statement,” shared Gillian. “I never would’ve been able to do that without Heartwood Healing Centre.”

Now 25, Gillian’s life looks much different. She feels safe in her body, in her relationships, and in her new home. She now has tools to handle triggers from her past and has hope for her future.

“I can breathe again. I can live again,” said Gillian. “I think people don’t really realize how important these [agencies] are. I honestly don’t know where I would be without Heartwood Healing Centre.”

Help change lives like Gillian’s in Winnipeg now.


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