Women’s shelters team up with Lemon Cree in new pilot project

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lem2photoLemon Cree’s Theresa Ducharme is leading a new project to bring her unique brand of healing and fitness courses to women on the run staying in Montreal and Aboriginal women’s shelters in Ottawa.

Having worked previously with the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM) to offer programming to the staff, Ducharme said her courses are ideal for the shelter’s clientele.

“We decided that because the women there are in such crisis, that this would be a great element to add because they are dealing with stuff on an emotional, mental and spiritual level and so the idea was to do something physical that would help in making good decisions and to make them feel better,” said Ducharme.

Ducharme and Sheila Swasson conceived the program. Swasson works with the National Aboriginal Circle Against Family Violence (NACAFV), which funds the project.

“I love this project because it is innovative,” explained Swasson. “Bringing a fitness and wellness program into the shelters is not something often you hear about because we are already dealing with so many other issues like the security of these women and issues with their children. There are so many things going on with these women. It’s not something that many communities or organizations are doing.”

Besides being the president of NACAFV’s Board of Directors, Swasson heads an Aboriginal women’s shelter in the Gaspésie. The needs of Aboriginal women in shelters are all too familiar to her.

According to Swasson, the is applying for funding to create Lemon Cree programs in the 41 on-reserve women’s shelters across Canada. Part of the plan is to offer a week’s worth of fitness and wellness programming to women in need and those who work with them. They also intend to offer certification courses to shelter staff so the programs continue to thrive. Women staying at these shelters could also obtain the certification as an employment opportunity.

While the funding has yet to be approved, the NACAFV has received a green light to bring the pilot to Winnipeg’s women in need as a third leg of this tour.

As far as Swasson is concerned, there is a lot to be gained by building the program. “It impacts fitness and health and wellness programs,” said Swasson. “This impacts the mind, body and spirit and overall it can really build self-confidence, self-esteem and self-image.”


Having spent two hours a day participating in a combination of Ducharme’s Bounce Fit and a stretch-and-flex program, Carrie Martin, the NWSM’s Holistic Health Coordinator, was not only seeing the positive spinoffs for herself but also for her clientele at the shelter.

Martin said the four-day intensive event at the Rising Sun Daycare Centre in Montreal was wonderful for the participants and for the community at large as there are so few Aboriginal-specific services of that kind available in the city.

“Of the women who chose to be measured, there were four of us who were measured at the beginning and then again at the end and we all lost inches. There was one woman who even lost eight inches in those four days. That was amazing,” said Martin. “If this is something that we could do on a regular basis, it would have an incredible impact on our community.”

If funding is granted, Martin said she would get certified in order to offer the program to her shelter’s clientele on a regular basis. The program is not just a much-needed form of escape and a stress release, but, according to Martin, it addresses needs that aren’t currently being met.

“When you look at the numbers of women who are coming through the shelter who are dealing with issues like obesity and diabetes on top of everything else, we are doing everything we can to incorporate physical activity into the things that we do. However, the funding doesn’t exist to support those programs, so it makes it very difficult to ensure that we have physical activities for them,” said Martin.

Ducharme says she gets a lot of satisfaction running these programs because of the incredible transformation she witnesses.

“Not only do you see physical transformation but there is a transformation in their mental state. All of a sudden they look different because their energy is different and their prospects in life also look different,” she observed.

“Having suddenly lost five or 10 pounds, they realize that anything is possible. They start to get into that frame of mind where they know that they can take on other things. I see positive and amazing changes in these women.”

And, for women in difficulty who may not have control over the other aspects of their lives, getting time to focus on their health provides an excellent platform for transformation.

According to Ducharme, she has seen some of these women find a new hope for change in their lives and feel more capable to take on other challenges. Some expressed a desire to go back to school while others are empowered to take on issues they may have previously avoided.

“We have two Inuit women who are taking the class and both are staying in the shelter. Once again, I can really see their quiet strength. They are strong and have this determination,” said Ducharme.

“Another woman told me that when she arrived from Val-d’Or, she literally ran here to get into safety. I look at her now and she has the biggest smile on her face because she’s so determined to change her life and it is going to start here. It is just so powerful.”

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