Immigrant women find path to success

Donor-funded program gives student skills to create resource for newcomers

Jessica Barrett - 22 January 2018

Tracy Folorunsho-Barry

Donor support helped Tracy Folorunsho-Barry realize her dream to help other immigrant women adapt to their new lives in Canada.

Tracy Folorunsho-Barry bounces into a southside Edmonton coffee shop, her energy lighting up the room. The busy student, entrepreneur and mother is the very picture of the Canadian dream. But this was not the vision Folorunsho-Barry had in mind when she immigrated to Canada from Nigeria at the age of 17. Back then, she had no vision at all of what her new life could be.

Connecting the Dots

  • The Cause: Donor Eileen Mercier wants more non-profit organizations to thrive
  • The Gift: Funds to establish hands-on leadership program and internships for students
  • The Impact: Student creates network for immigrant women building new lives in Canada

For immigrants escaping poverty, war, abuse or oppression, the freedom to create a meaningful life in Canada can be a difficult concept to grasp. Social services met Folorunsho-Barry's basic needs upon landing in Toronto, but she was unsure how to build a life that went beyond day-to-day survival. Unaware of any options, she did what she knew: she married young and had a baby, and then another and another.

"I thought creating my own village would be the best thing to do to fight the isolation," says Folorunsho-Barry, now 31 and a mother of five.

It wasn't until years later, living on social assistance in subsidized housing, that she realized she could build a different kind of life - and a different kind of village.

"I would go on Facebook and see these women, other immigrants, doing amazing things," she recalls. They were running businesses, graduating from university and owning homes. Inspired and determined to lift herself out of a life of dependence, she moved her family across the country to study nursing at the University of Alberta, supported in part by donor-funded bursaries.

Now, the third-year student is inspiring other immigrant women to find and follow their passions, thanks to a unique opportunity offered through the university's Community Service-Learning (CSL) program. In 2017 Folorunsho-Barry was selected to participate in CSL's Pathways program, where students learn about the business and governance of non-profit organizations and gain experience through a paid internship with a local organization.

Developing business acumen is crucial to building the capacity of Canada's non-profit sector, explains Eileen Mercier, '69 MA, founding donor of the Pathways program. To Mercier, Pathways seemed like the perfect opportunity to pique students' interest in non-profit governance - an area where skills gaps are common and have caused many valuable organizations to falter.

"[The non-profit sector] is not just about doing charitable work," says Mercier, whose donation helped establish the program. "It's about how to run a charity, how to actually make it work and stay solvent."

Folorunsho-Barry interned with the Edmonton Immigrant Services Association, where she encountered many women with stories like her own - relieved to have found safety in Canada but with no idea what to do next. Often they were mothers struggling with unemployment, abuse and depression. During her internship, Folorunsho-Barry decided to create her own non-profit organization, Gradual Rising of Women (GROW), to empower immigrant women to build communities and pursue their goals.

"I thought, if I wait for life to be perfect, these women might be dead," she says about her desire to take action while juggling university and raising her kids.

GROW is a mentorship network and speaker series featuring successful immigrant women who have overcome adversity to build fulfilling lives in Canada. Whether they have retrained for a new career, balanced raising a family with attending university or struggled with post-traumatic stress, each woman is proof of what is possible through networking and support.

Since launching in April 2017, GROW has blossomed from a grassroots initiative to a national network. Folorunsho-Barry has hosted multiple events - including a conference of 180 women in November - and is scheduled to bring her speaker series to at least seven Canadian cities next year. She has compiled stories of 150 women for a book to mark Canada's 150th birthday, and she has plans to launch a magazine. Throughout the journey, Folorunsho-Barry has drawn on connections made through Pathways to secure funding and assemble a rich list of speakers and advisers.

Pathways not only left Folorunsho-Barry with a crystal clear vision of her own future, it gave her the tools and support to help others focus on theirs. As she says, "I really want to reach people who have come here and are thinking, 'Now what?'"