For someone who’s just 21-years-old, Mary Hawk has heard a lot of dark stories.
She’s the founder of the Sheen for She Foundation, a Toronto-based non-profit organization aimed at boosting the confidence of vulnerable women, like those fleeing violence, facing homelessness or dealing with mental illness.
On one particular occasion, she says she spoke to a woman who said her husband had locked her outside on a hot summer day as punishment because she wouldn’t listen to him.
“It’s just the invisibility of all these issues that really just makes me want to do something,” she says.
“We don’t understand just how it can degrade a woman and completely destroy her.”
Hawk says she’s always had a passion for women’s rights issues. Reading books on violence against women and forced marriage as a teen. In 2018, she took her advocacy one step further, creating an organization providing self-care tools to vulnerable women.
The foundation offers free workshops on self-care, self-defence and personal grooming to low-income women to boost their self-esteem.
When the pandemic hit — along with a surge in domestic violence cases — Hawk wanted to do more.
In August, she created the ‘Love Box Project,’ a way to show women in shelters someone was thinking about them.
Hawk reached out to more than 50 women’s organizations across the GTA to find out the specific needs of women there. Then, through grants and donations, she and her team created customized boxes full of food, hygiene products, and most importantly, feel-good items.
Many boxes contain comfort food, makeup, hair and face masks or nail-care kits. The final component — a letter full of love from the Sheen for She team.
“A lot of us don’t realize just how much a simple self-care tool can mean for these women who are just trying to escape,” Hawk says.
“It all just comes down to giving women power and helping them to use it.”
Hawk’s organization has now handed out more than 3,000 of the boxes and 400 “love bags” tailored to the needs of children.
‘It’s a big impact’
Khadija Kathy Ali is the coordinator of engagement and volunteers at Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter in Etobicoke — a 32-bed facility serving women and children fleeing violence.
She says the pandemic has had a huge impact on their service, with their 24-hour crisis line ringing off the hook.
“When you have women and children that are fleeing from violence and abuse with no place to go, sometimes they don’t have a choice but to stay in that particular situation they’re in,” she says.
Even when some women are able to escape, COVID-19 has made the transition period even more difficult, Ali says. Women and their children have to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks before they’re able to stay at the shelter. Even then, the restrictions in place due to the pandemic can be isolating at a time when they’re already vulnerable.
“They have to eat at a scheduled time. Normally this wasn’t the case; everyone had meals together,” Ali says.
“Birthday parties were celebrated at the shelter. Women gave birth, brought the baby home, baby showers were happening. So it was really a beautiful experience despite you going through this very difficult transition in your life.”
Hawk’s love boxes have helped many of the women feel empowered, Ali says, because many at the shelter often have to make tough financial choices and items for their own self-care are simply out of the budget.
So when a love box filled with toiletries, makeup and even a bag of treats arrives, it’s a special feeling, she says.
“A lot of the time the women are like, ‘I’m cut off from my family and sometimes they don’t really care about what’s going on with me and my children. But here’s a complete stranger who has put a box together of items, thinking about me and thinking about my children,’ and it’s a big impact.”
Those reactions motivate Hawk to continue her mission, even while juggling studies in software engineering at Arizona State University and psychology at York University.
“We need to remind these women that they’re humans who don’t deserve to be treated this way, and once they develop that strength, that inner motivation, they can get anywhere.”