After spending 7 years in Grand Valley Institution for Women, Melissa spent time in a halfway house, where she was connected to Building Up. There, she quickly found her place, both excelling in the trades and finding a passion for community outreach. Melissa graduated from the Building Up program in 2020, and is now a finish carpenter apprentice for Local 27 and a Peer Support Worker. You can find her at panels and conferences talking about the value of Building Up’s Program, advocating for work programs for women inmates, and of course, working as a peer support worker at Community Healing Project and as a Community Peer for St. Stephens.
Tell me about yourself!
My name is Melissa, and I am a finish carpenter apprentice at West Point for Local 27. I’m also a Peer Support Worker for Community Healing Project, Progress Place, and a Community Peer for St. Stephens. I’m also an alumnus from Building Up. Yeah, I have so many titles, it’s just ridiculous!
How did you find up about Building Up?
In 2018. I worked for a company called We Moved People and it’s an agency where they put people into working placements. During that time, I was in a halfway house. I had just got out of prison after seven years of being in the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, and I wanted to work. I wanted not just to work, but also to go back to school, which I was at Humber College doing Architectural Technology, and I got a job at Magna doing car parts.
How did your journey with Building Up start?
How I found out about Building Up is that one of the caseworkers at the Halfway House knew I wanted to get into construction, and she found out about this thing going around the entire halfway house. Since Building Up is a program and working environment, she thought of me. I was like, okay, let me try it out. I called, then I sent my resume and then they called me right away and said, we have an interview, can you come tomorrow? The next day, I went and I met Tarah and Ashley, and they did my interview and the interview went so well, and it was so fun, that since the program didn’t start until July, they asked do I want to work? And I’m like, heck yes. I ended up working the next day, and ever since then, I’ve been working for Building Up, and got a spot in the program. So, July 16th, 2018 is when I started the program.
What did your career path after the program look like?
I actually graduated 2 years after. The reason why I graduated so late is because while I was in a process of graduating, I got hurt. I got injured at one of their work sites and I broke my ankle. I couldn’t do any lifting or anything for a year during the time of my injury, and then I went to surgery and I couldn’t do anything for another four or five months. I ended up doing a lot of outreach.
I got Building Up to get into the women’s prison to advocate for their program and what they do. I know women there that want to do trades and in a women prison setting, there’s not enough work training- it’s mainly programming. They feel like females are always emotional and we need a program to regulate our emotions and whatever. I broke that stigma, and I broke that barrier and was able to go in, escorted by a staff member I knew. I talked to the women that I did time with about what I was in the process of doing before I got injured.
And you eventually went back into the trades?
I was doing more outreach for the program, but also working on myself with getting into my trade. After maybe seven, eight months later, I did my test for local 27. I passed my test and funny enough, I switched from carpentry to flooring and that’s how I got into flooring, and I was the first one from Building Up to get into flooring. Once that happened, it was hard for me to let go of Building Up because I’d been with them for so long, but then I knew it was my time to move on. I completed my Level 1 as the top two of my class, and I chose my first job site which was the Mackenzie Vaughan Hospital. I was there with this company called Northwood for about three to four months.
From there, I went to Gym-con, where I installed new parquet flooring at my old high school. And then I was back and forth with Building Up during February to early March, then COVID hit, and I continued working with Building Up. They converted a 200-year-old church to a three-bedroom house for three autistic women, and I was privileged to not only start on that job site from demolition to framing, but also come back as an apprentice to that same site to do finishing touches. It was such a unique journey to see that house from demolition, to finishing. The next project I did for Building up was at Markham renovating a home for Blue Doors. I demoed and installed drywall and flooring for that house until I got into my job now, doing gym floors for all different types of schools. So I’ve been traveling nonstop from June until now with West point.
Clearly you’re very accomplished when it comes to trades! It’s interesting that you left Building Up and ended up coming back for a little bit. I guess you’ll always have roots within the organization.
Right, because I’m still an alumnus, I could go back if I need to. I do a lot with Building Up when it comes to outreach or any type of workshop. Even during the time of working at my first major job site, I did a speech for Building Up when they completed that transition house in ups and downs. I met a lot of politicians there, including the ministry of labor,
Can you tell me about how you got into outreach and doing work in the community?
I have a wonderful caseworker, Karen, and she sees so much potential in me that she knew every single program I could participate in and do outreach for. The first program I did was called Women on the Move. It was a great program because one, it’s for women. Two, it was women that were fleeing from abusive relationships and they were living in the women’s shelter. I did that program, and it was not just knowing about violence and relationships, but it was also to rebuild our self-esteem, our confidence, and where to look for jobs and just pretty much womanhood. That was a great program to be in because there was great staff there. I even started doing counseling with one of the instructors who is a certified social worker.
Then there was CHP, which is called Community Healing Project, which again came through Karen who said, “Melissa, I think you should join.” That’s how I got my certification as a peer support worker. because they were partners of George Brown. It was a long program, our training was six months and then the other three and a half months was workshops. So, I did that program, and we got to choose an underprivileged neighborhood to do workshops for youth. And I chose my old, my old, um, neighborhood where I grew up, which is St. Jamestown, which we call Bleecker street. I did a 12-week workshop at St. Jamestown community corner for youth, and then I got my certification.
Do you have advice for anyone who has been incarcerated and is in a similar situation as you?
My advice to anybody that has gone through the system and feels that, you know, having a record means a death sentence, it’s not a death sentence, never use your record as an excuse. If you’re determined to better yourself, there’s so many resources that you could go to that could help you to get to point A to point B. I know that mental health plays a key role into funding that determination to move forward, because I do have mental health issues, but I’m also determined to better myself and not use my mental health as a scapegoat, to not do anything. Whatever you want to do, just know that there are resources for you to be successful in life.
Do you have advice for women who are in trades or hesitant about being in trades?
Don’t be hesitant. Don’t be scared. It’s scary because yeah, you’re around men a lot. As for me, I’m the only female in my company. Keep your head up. It’s hard to work towards a goal of getting that red seal and you feel that it’s impossible because of a company you got yourself into. Make sure you choose what you want in a trade, Don’t settle. To all females who are part of building up, use Building Up as your supports, because I still have Karen, I still have Rahim as my supports when I’m going through my issues through the trades. I would say I’m strong and I’m very determined, but there is a point at time where you feel like you lose hope and you feel you’re a female, you can’t carry this or you can’t do that, You’re being yelled at for stupid reasons. Don’t get discouraged. I still get discouraged sometimes, but I know what my self worth is. I know who I am at the end of the day. I know what I can do.