Carmel Chamberlain, coming full circle with United Way

Human and Social Development

- Brock Hurley, UVic United Way campaign assistant

Carmel Chamberlain, of UVic’s School of Public Health and Social Policy, knows full well the healing potential and importance of having a network of different types of support during times of struggle. This is especially true when the safety and happiness of one’s family is on the line. Carmel has been on both sides of the United Way’s efforts, both accessing United Way funded programs and services, and recently working with United Way as a Loaned Representative during the 2014 Greater Victoria fundraising campaign.

There is a common misconception about the sort of people that use United Way funded programs. We tell ourselves “that could never happen to me or my friends and colleagues.” There can be a negative stigma surrounding these programs and a fear of needing to take advantage of them. But it’s always important to have a strong network of support to fall back on. The positive impact of the network of support programs and services funded by United Way can be felt even here at UVic—a place many may not think would have as great a need for assistance.

Carmel became a single mother to a young daughter after a long struggle to fully leave a difficult, high conflict relationship where most interactions were aggressive and very confrontational. “Although we had split up a number of times dating back to 2008, we didn’t fully separate until 2010,” Carmel recalls. There was no stability, and her young daughter was in constant exposure to the separation. Worried about the emotional well being of her daughter, Carmel decided to take action.

Carmel needed a solid parenting agreement in place to bring stability to her daughter’s life. Carmel applied to court, and received a trial date after a long period of time. In the time before the trial, which included three failed mediation attempts, co-parenting became increasingly difficult. Even practical things like signing her daughter up for public programs like swimming lessons became an obstacle, and the emotional toll it was having on her child was beginning to show as well. “I felt helpless and frustrated. I didn’t know what to do to help my little girl through this. I also didn’t know how to get myself through it. I was emotionally tapped out,” says Carmel.

Carmel found support in a number of agencies. One of the agencies Carmel accessed was Family Services of Greater Victoria. Beginning with personal counselling and legal support, Family Services GV has also offered access to support groups for Carmel and her daughter. “It was a relief to see my daughter openly expressing her emotions and explaining how she was feeling about what was going on around her,” says Carmel. ““I had also found a place for myself. I hadn’t realized how alone I felt until I was in that supportive environment.”

“After a 50/50 parenting agreement had been secured, I found myself responsible for the majority of my daughter’s expenses,” Carmel states. Even a well-paying job at UVic didn’t provide enough for a single parent who still faced substantial remaining legal fees. Carmel began taking up additional contract work on top of her full time work and parenting responsibilities, but anything she earned from additional work was still only enough to cover groceries, gas and personal hygiene. “This left me feeling stretched thin, both financially and emotionally,” Carmel explained. “Between working, parenting, and managing a stressful former relationship, I just had nothing left.”

It was at this time Carmel found about the financial assistance program at the YMCA/YWCA of Greater Victoria, which subsidized summer camps for her daughter. “Without this assistance, I wouldn’t have been able to send her to camp, leaving me struggling to find childcare while I was at work during the summer,” Carmel states.

Carmel felt inspired to give back to her community for all of the support that she and her daughter had received. In the Fall of 2014, Carmel had the opportunity to participate in the United Way Loaned Representative program. Loaned Representatives (or LRs as they are affectionately known) are employees “loaned” to United Way Greater Victoria by their employers to assist with the annual United Way fundraising campaign. UVic sponsors at least one LR every year, and a close friend and colleague made Carmel aware of the position.

Carmel was looking for a change of pace and wanted to do something to inspire others. As she learned more about United Way, she gradually came to realize that the position would be a good fit for her. Carmel was especially attracted to United Way’s role as a leader in social change. “United Way empowers each and every one of us to support one another,” says Carmel. “They are there so that we can take care of one another, should we need it.”

When she did further research into United Way and came across the list of programs and services that they fund, Carmel was hooked. Seeing programs and services that she had used herself (including Family Services GV and the YMCA/YWCA) gave her the final push toward pursuing the Loaned Representative experience. “Everything started to align. This was the greater purpose I had been searching for. This was my way of giving back; back to those within our community who need the support and back to the services that have and continue to support my child and me,” says Carmel.

It has been a long journey for Carmel and her daughter, but together they have overcome every obstacle to date. Returning to her regular UVic post after the LR experience, Carmel feels even more appreciative of the network of support provided by her community. “The stigma that only homeless or addicted people are receiving United Way assistance is not a reflection of what is actually happening, and it’s time for people to see that,” says Carmel. “My daughter and I continue to be supported by this network of services, and this network may not exist if not for the support of United Way. We have been, and continue to be, on the receiving end, and after the LR experience, it now feels so great to be on the giving side of the equation.”


Applications to become a 2015 United Way loaned representative are being accepted through June 4. Full details. 


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Keywords: United Way, public health and social policy, staff

People: Carmel Chamberlain

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