Finding a voice to complete her journey
Chana Weiss, once silent about her traumatic past, wants to help those like her
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