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Perseverance, photography – and powerful new perspectives for women in need

March 1, 2021


The dual storm of the pandemic and domestic violence has left some women especially vulnerable. Addressing this critical need was one of the areas where Rogers leaned in first, starting in the early days of COVID-19 – almost a year ago – and still today, to support the incredible work of Women’s Shelters Canada, with hundreds of devices, plans, and an awareness campaign to help women find safety. 

Of course, women’s shelters existed before the pandemic.  Michelle Houjeily, a Montreal-based Training and Delivery Manager joins Sevaun Palvetzian, who leads corporate social responsibility for Rogers, for a new edition of The Spark – a conversation that reveals while our ideas of “support” often lean towards providing essentials, sometimes the gift of time and connection is the greatest one you can give.

For clients at Montreal’s Le Chaînon women’s shelter, finding their voices through art is a powerful way to be seen and heard.  Michelle is a passionate advocate for vulnerable women, especially those struggling with domestic violence, mental health challenges, social isolation, and housing insecurity.  Her commitment is deeply personal:  Michelle left home at 15, escaping an unstable home life complicated by her mother’s untreated mental health issues. 

Michelle was drawn to supporting vulnerable women at Le Chaînon, a Montreal shelter serving women for more than 80 years, supporting those with mental and physical health issues, addictions, behavioral disorders, or escaping abuse.  It also offers unique programs for older women who need more social supports and integration. 

At first, Michelle started the way so many of us do – fundraising to tackle the essentials.  With $4,000, a team of volunteers assembled 100 winter packages with warm socks, hats, gloves, and hygiene products. The care package also included a disposable camera – and a challenge.

THE SPARK: When a picture can speak a thousand words, a simple camera can empower a voice…

Socks are essential – but Michelle wanted to offer the women something more. Something personal and empowering. When a picture can speak a thousand words, a simple camera could be a powerful voice.

Before the pandemic, Michelle and Rogers colleague David Noiseux collaborated with professional Montreal photographer Liana Carbone to bring a photography workshop to Le Chaînon.  The workshop, called “Creating in the Moment,” combines theory with mindfulness – using the camera as a way to pause and be present in the moment.  They worked through several different techniques with the women, from still life to portraits. Then, the women had two weeks to take pictures that expressed their unique perspective – from street art and city life, to movement in the trees.  Michelle, David, and Liana developed the film and mounted the images in an exhibit at Le Chaînon.  It was the first time the women saw their pictures, and with the exhibit, they were not simply invisible women living at a shelter:  they were artists.  Michelle and Liana will hold a new photography workshop – virtually – for clients at Le Chaînon in March.

The Impact:

Everyone has something important to say, and that expression shouldn’t be limited by access or social status.  The women who participated in the workshop are more confident and feel seen – which has a positive effect on their mental wellbeing.  Michelle has formed a bond with several women from Le Chaînon, meeting for coffee – and even helping one woman move into her own home!  Michelle is humbled and inspired by their stories of resilience and perseverance – they are seeking the support that her mother never did.

Michelle’s story is a great example of when you mix your passion and unique skills with something the world needs, it can make a difference – and may ignite a “spark” in others as well.  Since then, Michelle raised funds for two new laptops for Le Chaînon.  Inspired to help even more women at Le Chaînon connect to what matters, we surprised Michelle with five new tablets to donate to the shelter and her reaction is unforgettable, as you can see in the video.

And as Rogers deepens our partnership with Women’s Shelters Canada with device and service support for all shelters – including Le Chaînon, which received devices and plans in 2020 – even more women will find their voice this year, just when they need it the most.