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“I’ll never forget how good it felt to have someone believe in me.”

March 21, 2024

4 MIN READ

After surviving a traumatic childhood, a network of support helped Cheryl find a path to connection and healing

When she was growing up, Cheryl’s home seemed “normal” by all accounts.

She wore nice clothes, never went hungry, and lived in a comfortable house in a quiet Winnipeg neighbourhood.

But on the inside, it was a different story.

“My home environment was controlling and abusive,” explained Cheryl. “Even though I’d been given much materially, I was emotionally beaten. I felt empty and alone.”

Cheryl’s father, a survivor of abject poverty and his own traumatic childhood, inherited generations of untreated mental illness—which he passed down to his kids.

Without the right tools and resources, Cheryl’s parents relied on physical punishment for discipline. As Cheryl reached her teenage years, her father’s violence shifted into sexual abuse.

“I avoided being within ten feet of him at all costs,” said Cheryl. “It makes me sad that I couldn’t hug my dad without putting myself in danger.”

Cheryl sharing her story from a stage the RBC Convention Centre, a red United Way Winnipeg backdrop behind her.
“The spiritual and the emotional well-being of people is as important as the physical.”

"I felt empty and alone."

Yet the emotional abuse in Cheryl’s home was an invisible trauma harming her as much as the physical, triggering deep shame and low self-esteem.

“I felt so unseen,” remarked Cheryl. “I left home as soon as I was able.”

Without a sense of worth or a trusted adult to guide her, Cheryl filled the void with risky activities and abusive relationships.

By 18, she’d gotten into trouble with the law in another province. Fearing she’d end up in jail, Cheryl felt a wave of relief when an advocate from the Elizabeth Fry Society (EFS) network in B.C. came to her side.

Dedicated to helping women involved with the justice system, EFS was a trusted guide to Cheryl—from accompanying her at the police station to making sure she was granted probation instead of becoming part of the prison system.

“Elizabeth Fry saw not only my pain and the barriers I faced but also my strengths and potential,” shared Cheryl.

“I’ll never forget how good it felt to have someone believe in me, stand up for me, fight for me.”

Cheryl smiles brightly while wearing a grey t-shirt that says "We Are All Winnipeg."

"I just felt different."

As Cheryl moved further into adulthood, she knew there was another layer of her identity to uncover.

“I just felt different,” she said, “but because I was so entangled in the dysfunctional relationship with my dad, it never occurred to me that I was gay.”

With little knowledge of or connection to 2SLGBTQ+ communities, Cheryl wasn’t sure where to start. Yet through her workplace fundraising campaign at Payworks, Cheryl discovered Rainbow Resource Centre—North America’s longest-running queer and trans resource centre.

There, through workshops and new friendships, Cheryl felt a sense of comfort and belonging as she navigated her identity and unpacked the harmful ideologies she’d grown up with.

“Rainbow Resource Centre celebrated me, just for who I was as a human being,” she shared.

"I needed help."

Finding a caring community was a lifeline for Cheryl. But the scars from her childhood traumas lingered.

By the time she’d reached her fifties, she’d never had an intimate relationship that wasn’t abusive.

“I needed help,” Cheryl explained. “But at that point in my life, I had exhausted my sources of paid counselling that were affordable for me.”

Just as hope seemed lost, Cheryl heard about the free counselling services offered by Heartwood Healing Centre—and she leapt at the chance to participate.

Formerly known as the Laurel Centre, the donor-supported agency has walked alongside survivors of childhood and adolescent sexual abuse since 1985.

Before moving into individual therapy, Cheryl found a comforting space alongside peers with similar experiences through group counselling. It was a safe place where she could begin working through her emotional triggers and breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

“I wasn’t alone. I received two years of therapy for free—thanks to donations through United Way Winnipeg,” she said.

“All three of these agencies supported by United Way Winnipeg donors were pivotal in my survival.”

Cheryl speaks to a captivated audience at United Way Winnipeg's Celebration 2023 event at RBC Convention Centre.
“The thing I took away as a Sponsored Campaign Associate is that the city is more kind and more generous than I could have ever imagined.”

“All three of these agencies supported by United Way Winnipeg donors were pivotal in my survival.”

Now, with the safe harbour of a loving partner and the steadfast support of the community to buoy her, Cheryl is confidently flourishing in life—and paying kindness forward along the way.

Last fall, life came full circle when Cheryl eagerly joined a team of Sponsored Campaign Associates working on United Way Winnipeg’s 2023 fundraising campaign.

Generously loaned for a term by local companies, these caring Winnipeggers bring tremendous talents and energy to help strengthen a network of 125+ life-changing agencies, programs, and services across the city.

“When I started as a Sponsored Campaign Associate, I still struggled to trust and had a very jaded view of people,” Cheryl said. “I felt like the Grinch arriving to Whoville. But by being in such a loving and inclusive place, my heart grew three sizes larger.”

After wrapping up her time as a Sponsored Executive and her 40+ year career in payroll, Cheryl connected with United Way Winnipeg’s What’s Next? Retiree Group, where she found a circle of friends and a meaningful volunteer opportunity at Koats for Kids.

“My childhood wasn’t easy,” Cheryl explained, “but I never went without a winter coat.”

She also found another healing pathway by sharing her story at workplaces and community events, including United Way Winnipeg’s 2023 Celebration event.

“The kindnesses shown me by many along the way is the reason I would emerge from my trauma as a winner,” she told a captivated audience at the RBC Convention Centre in January.

“As I look back on my journey, I’m filled with gratitude for this network of agencies helping Winnipeggers like me every single day—and for the generous people who support them.”

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