Iris Fabbro doesn’t like a lot of attention. But after 25 years of running the North York Women’s Centre (NYWC) – an organization that has assisted thousands of women – her colleagues want to celebrate her extraordinary contributions to the group and the non-profit sector.
“Without Executive Director Iris Fabbro, NYWC would simply not exist,” says Elissa Podolsky, Chair of NYWC’s Board of Directors. “She is, at times, a one-woman army. Her commitment to the organization reflects her deep devotion to women’s equality and non-profit work, and her resilience over the last 25 years has been nothing short of remarkable.”
“I’m proud of NYWC and grateful to all of the staff, volunteers and board members who have contributed to our success over the years,” says Fabbro. “What’s amazing about this group is that we really help women empower themselves.”
Changing Lives, One Woman At A Time
With free empowerment workshops, virtual and in-person drop-in sessions, advocacy projects, one-to-one support and programs to assist women and mothers experiencing a variety of barriers, North York Women’s Centre makes a powerful difference in participants’ lives.
Fabbro recalls one woman who arrived at NYWC at a particularly low point in her life, as she battled health problems, a divorce and unemployment. Participating in the Women’s Empowerment Series helped her refocus on the things she had to offer and avoid damaging relationships. “She’s now a person who has the strength to say, I need to do what’s best for my health and wellbeing,” says Fabbro.
Another client found compassion for herself through NYWC support, allowing her to become a better parent. NYWC programs helped her understand that she hadn’t deserved the abuse she received as a child and to learn to parent in new ways that didn’t reflect how she had been raised. “The saying that ‘hurt people hurt people’ is very true,” says Fabbro. “It was mind-blowing to her that she could break that cycle.”
Changing Times, Changing Needs
Twenty-five years ago, NYWC was located in a church balcony with a telephone answering machine and an electronic typewriter. Today, the organization operates out of 116 Industry Street with a team of staffers, program facilitators and board members who collaborate using cloud-based platforms. “Our staff and volunteers reflect the diversity and community of the women we serve,” says Fabbro.
Women in the north and west parts of Toronto still face a lot of barriers, many exacerbated by the pandemic. Already disproportionately placed in lower-paying, service roles, many women lost their jobs or had to work in conditions that put them and their families at risk. Women’s unpaid care work increased as daycares closed, schools moved to remote learning and older people in lockdown needed additional support. Stress, social isolation and mental health issues increased for people, along with an exponential rise in gender-based violence, especially domestic and intimate partner violence. These challenges have motivated the NYWC to provide more programs than ever before, knowing that participants need support more than ever.
“The north and west neighbourhoods of Toronto have often been neglected, so it’s important that agencies like ours are here in the community rather than downtown,” says Fabbro, noting that funding hasn’t always kept pace with demand.
Still, Fabbro is happy to report that many things have changed for the better in society over the past 25 years. “There’s much more awareness about women’s rights, gender-based violence and trauma and LGBTQ2S+ rights today,” she says. “Attitudes have changed, and society is more willing to believe women.”
Always Moving Forward
After 25 years at NYWC, Fabbro is excited to tackle new challenges with the team and celebrate the successes of many former interns and team members who now work at or lead other non-profits. “Mentorship is so important,” she says. “I’m grateful to the women who have mentored me over the years, and I’m always thrilled when former participants become volunteers or former placement students are appointed as non-profit staff or directors.”
Advised in her youth against being a “troublemaker” or getting “too much education,” Fabbro has proudly embraced both. It lights her up to collaborate with other women to create a kinder and more-inclusive world, delivering programs that boost gender equity and help newcomers to Canada and women who have experienced precarious housing, economic vulnerability, trauma and abuse. Women like Rachelle Beswick, a former NYWC participant who says, “The North York Women’s Centre created such a supportive community during one of the most difficult years of my life. I am now standing taller and prouder as a survivor. I am not just a victim, I am a survivor, a warrior.”
If you bump into Iris Fabbro, though, she might not mention Rachelle’s story or her own 25th anniversary at North York Women’s Centre. She might not talk about NYWC’s many collaborations with other non-profits, universities and colleges. But if you ask, she will tell you about how rewarding working in the non-profit sector can be, how amazing it is to see the growth of former clients and team members, and her advice to other women, which applies equally well to her: “Be true to yourself. You’re perfect the way you are.”
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