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culture

“Exclusive: I Can’t Afford Breakfast”

Tabloid-parody ad campaign for local non-profit shifts attention to stories that matter.

Truth.WoodGreen

What if Torontonians paid as much attention to shelter issues as they do Miley Cyrus’s tongue, or cared about childcare as much as they do Justin Bieber’s monkey? That’s the eye-catching approach of a new ad campaign for WoodGreen, a non-profit that’s served Toronto’s downtown east side for over 75 years. Under breathless tabloid headlines like “Tanya: tries to avoid eviction” and “Exclusive: I can’t afford breakfast,” the ads feature real young women who have struggled with various issues, including spousal abuse, the City’s shelter system, underemployment, a lack of affordable housing, and a lack of access to childcare. All of the women in the ads are single mothers and graduates of WoodGreen’s Homeward Bound program.

Established in 2004, the four-year program provides a college education, affordable housing, free childcare, and other development and counselling services for single mothers looking for new opportunities. After completing the program, graduates are connected with jobs at companies such as TD, Dell, and Xerox—many of them have earned multiple promotions since joining their firms. According to WoodGreen, 80 per cent of the women who enter the program graduate, and a 2013 consultant review indicates the program provides a 4:1 return on investment.

WoodGreen hopes to take its program province-wide, and through the campaign, is soliciting support to encourage Kathleen Wynne to invest in its expansion.

The awareness campaign is running online, on TV, and in ads on the TTC and in restrooms. According to DDB Canada, the ad agency that worked pro bono on the campaign, most of the ad space has been donated by various media companies.

DDB approached WoodGreen with the idea for the campaign after its executive creative director Denise Rosetto read an article about the non-profit in the Globe and Mail. What struck Rossetto was that people—herself included—often pay attention to the lived experiences of celebrities a world away instead of focusing on people confronting real, local challenges: “We don’t know the stories of the people who live one kilometre away from us, who are living in poverty and struggling to get out of poverty, yet we know everything about Kim Kardashian.”

Asked whether the campaign might trivialize the serious issues WoodGreen addresses, Rossetto says she feels the benefits outweigh the risks: “We wanted to make a juxtaposition about awareness—in no way are we trying to trivialize their situation. We’re just trying to say, ‘We should be paying more attention to people in our communities.’”

Anne Babcock, the chief operating officer of WoodGreen, is pleased with the positive response the campaign has received so far, and credits DDB, saying, “This campaign is absolutely fantastic. It’s something we never would have been able to do ourselves.” While the ads have been well received, Babcock stresses that the focus should remain on the women who inspired the campaign, and on the challenges they continue to face. “We need to give more coverage to what a struggling single mom faces every day,” she says. “There are a lot of single moms, and others, who have to cope with very difficult situations.” She adds that the struggles that many of the women face can happen to anyone, and that Homeward Bound’s strategy is to address multiple challenges at once to help women escape a cycle of poverty and insecurity.

Such struggles mark the story of one recent graduate of Homeward Bound, Ute Etotot. The 37-year-old Cameroonian, who moved to Toronto from Germany four years ago in order to escape an abusive relationship, is featured in the ad campaign as “Marlene.”

Lacking a support system in Toronto, Etotot found herself falling into some of the same traps. She entered into another abusive relationship, and at the time she didn’t recognize it for what it was—in part because her cultural background discourages discussion of the subject. “I’m from Africa,” she says. “We don’t talk so much about abuse. We keep things inside. That’s how life is. I didn’t see it as abuse. It was only later on that I realized he was abusing me, and I was taking it. After this relationship, I said, ‘No, no, this is not right. I need help.’”

Etotot wanted to pursue an education, but couldn’t because she lacked access to childcare. In a video posted on the WoodGreen website, she explains she was under a great deal of stress at the time, and felt confused and angry. She says she unfairly blamed her son, now 11, for the situation, and that his behaviour in school was making things worse. For a while, they moved from shelter to shelter—but finally, after researching online, she found the Homeward Bound program. It helped her to address her issues and challenges, and seemed made for people in her situation.

Four years later, Etotot works for BMO, and says that because of the program, both she and her son are doing much better.

What was her reaction when she was asked participate in the ad campaign? “I was happy. Because I have dealt with the pain, the hurt, the abuse. [WoodGreen] gave me what I am today, it is because of them and all those that invested in the program. So I want to give it back…with my abilities now, my freedom, I was happy to do it.”

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