Find­ing a voice to com­plete her journey

Chana Weiss, once silent about her trau­matic past, wants to help those like her

Toronto Star - - SPECIAL REPORT: JOE CARTER CLASSIC - JES­SICA WYNNE LOCK­HART SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR

Chana Weiss’ In­sta­gram account shows the life of a young woman rich with fam­ily and friends.

In one photo, she leans over a kitchen ta­ble to help blow out birth­day can­dles; in oth­ers, she dou­bles a friend on a bi­cy­cle and reads a bed­time story to a lit­tle boy.

Only the cap­tions, which of­ten are po­ems, hint that her life wasn’t al­ways pic­ture per­fect.

“I am 19 and I have to un­learn / and learn / 19 years of deny­ing trau­mas / 19 years of per­pet­u­at­ing harm / 19 years of run­ning from demons. / I have started over,” reads one poem.

When Weiss was 12, her fa­ther passed away. Over the fol­low­ing months, her mother be­came in­creas­ingly un­able to care for her and her sib­lings. Within a year, her fam­ily be­came home­less and Weiss had to act as the pri­mary care­giver for her 8-year-old sis­ter.

At 13, she was placed in the care of the Jewish Fam­ily and Child Ser­vices along with her sis­ter, when the fam­ily she was stay­ing with at the time rec­og­nized her sit­u­a­tion was not sus­tain­able. It meant that she had a roof over her head, but it wasn’t a home. Through­out high school, she bounced be­tween three foster fam­i­lies and a res­i­den­tial group home. The in­sta­bil­ity took its toll.

“I was liv­ing in sur­vival mode for a lot of years. Go­ing to school was not a pri­or­ity for me,” Weiss says. “Early on, I just ac­cepted the fact that I wasn’t very smart or ca­pa­ble.”

She says her low self-es­teem was only fur­ther re­in­forced by her Ortho­dox up­bring­ing, as it was taboo to dis­cuss her sit­u­a­tion. Si­lenced, Weiss felt alien­ated from her peers, was barely pass­ing her classes and had given up on at­tend­ing univer­sity.

It wasn’t un­til Grade 11 that she be­gan to find her voice again. “It was the teach­ers who helped me see that I have a lot of aca­demic po­ten­tial. They helped me move past the nar­ra­tive that I was telling my­self.”

Now en­ter­ing her third year of so­cial work at York Univer­sity with a mi­nor in Jewish stud­ies, Weiss is not only sur­viv­ing — she’s thriv­ing. For the past two years, she has been on the dean’s hon­our roll. It’s a feat that has par­tially been made pos­si­ble thanks to the fi­nan­cial sup­port of the Joe Carter Schol­ar­ship.

“Be­cause I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced home­less­ness, I’m some­times un­sure about the roof over my head. The schol­ar­ships take off some of the worry, so I can move past just sur­viv­ing. “I’m re­ally learn­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate the aca­demic journey that I’m on.”

Now liv­ing with a fam­ily that she met through Jewish Fam­ily & Child Ser­vices (she calls them her “fram­ily;” a con­junc­tion of “friend” and “fam­ily”), Weiss is help­ing other sur­vivors find their voices.

She is an am­bas­sador for the Chil­dren’s Aid Foun­da­tion and a mem­ber of the Pearl Project, a group cre­ated by the Jewish Fam­ily and Child or­ga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports young peo­ple who grad­u­ate out of the foster-care sys­tem. The spo­ken word poet is also bud­ding ac­tivist with an in­ter­est in ad­vo­cacy work, in­clud­ing work­ing with LGBTQ youth in the Jewish com­mu­nity. Although Weiss is not cer­tain what her next step is, one thing is clear. “I want to be in a po­si­tion to am­plify peo­ple’s voices and build com­mu­nity for peo­ple who are un­able to do that for them­selves,” she says.

“It was the teach­ers who helped me see that I have a lot of aca­demic po­ten­tial. They helped me move past the nar­ra­tive that I was telling my­self.” CHANA WEISS

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