Life was far from easy for Lisa Pierce. And then, she broke her back.
She was 32 and in an abusive relationship, raising three children while working as a heavy-equipment operator. After breaking her back in a workplace accident, the medication she was prescribed quickly devolved from pain management to addiction. Things went downhill from there.
“I had been dealing with trauma, and when it blew – and it blew – I was vulnerable,” said Pierce who, thanks to an educational support program once offered in the Faculty of Education, is graduating from King’s University College with a Bachelor of Social Work (Honors Specialization) and a three-year BA in Criminology.
“I had been in a domestic violence situation for years, and as it became worse, it became extremely violent. I developed an addiction; I became homeless; I ended up owing a lot of money, and it turned into a trafficking situation. (The program) brought me in at a time when I was getting clean and sober. I was going to die, if something didn’t happen.”
A collective of social agencies came together to intervene and support Pierce after she had been discovered on a London street, barely clothed, having escaped a basement in which she was held captive for three days as a result of being trafficked. The intervention involved London Police Service, the Rape Crisis Centre, My Sister’s Place, local shelters and support services for women. The Salvation Army-Correctional and Justice Services referred Pierce to The Bridges Project: Women’s Links to Learning.
“If those things hadn’t all come together, I really don’t know what would have happened. Things were escalating so far. I was spending day after day searching for shelter safety. I was using so many drugs to medicate. I was at the point where something really bad was going to happen; life had become so tragic and complicated that it didn’t matter where I turned, there was no more safety,” she said.
“Then I entered into The Bridges Project, when it was discovered – the amount of violence in my life. For me to get out of that lifestyle, I needed a strategy. I needed something to go towards. At the time, I was just surviving, existing day-to-day, whatever it took.”
The Bridges Project, spearheaded by psychologist and Western Education professor Susan Rodger, was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council from 2006-10. In partnership with London’s Wheable Adult Education Centre, and a number of local organizations and businesses, the program allowed women who came from an abusive environment not only to earn a high school diploma or equivalency, but also to learn basic life skills, gain confidence and opportunities to pursue postsecondary education.
“Women who experience violence often don’t have their high school education,” Rodger noted. “One of the major barriers to leaving an abusive relationship is an economic one. So, we put these things together. I had been working in the violence-against-women sector for a while, and we had some great partners, and we thought to look at what happens if we help women achieve either a high school education or equivalency.
“The idea being to see if that would put them in a better position to leave, have a better job or have healthier outcomes for themselves and their children. It was about helping women feel safe to come to school and not putting up barriers. A lot of the women had tough stories and experiences and our classroom became their safe space and a place where they felt they could ask for help.”
Through the Bridges Project, the women had a safe, segregated classroom at Wheable for four years. The Thames Valley District School Board donated a classroom and a teacher while Rodger worked with community partners to provide needed supports, including therapy. School ran on a flexible start time and schedule to accommodate women. Mornings were spent on academic pursuits while afternoons were spent learning life skills, cooking and engaging in art and other activities.
The Bridges Project saw 60 women pass through in the four years it was funded. Pierce, who started with a Grade 11 education and an undiagnosed learning disability, is the first from the program to graduate with a university degree.
“I started slowly establishing safer relationships, learning my worth. I wanted social work. The more education I got, the more I wanted to work with addictions and health. At first, I was afraid of it, because of my history, but then I realized I was a perfect candidate, I wanted to be at the table,” said Pierce, who earned a Fanshawe College diploma before completing her education at Western.
“As I keep progressing upwards, my mind is stretched more. I want to do my master’s. As I healed, I realized I want more, I want to do more. I didn’t feel confident enough to go to university, until I got here. I made it into a castle in the sky that was unattainable to me. When the wrap-around services set into place, I got my children back, things came together.”
Pierce currently works at King’s in reception and is getting married in the fall. She is an advocate for housing and mental health, sitting on a number of organizations, including All Our Sisters, National Network on Women and Homelessness, as well as London’s anti-trafficking committee.
“Lisa was really focused from the beginning; she wanted to go to university; she wanted to be a social worker because of what she had experienced,” Rodger said.
“I’m so incredibly proud of her, to think, there are an awful lot of people who said no to her – an awful lot of doors that were closed to her face and behind her back. There were a lot of barriers she had to overcome and I’m just so happy for her that she was able to do it. She started with us, and 10 years later, she’s there. Who among us has that kind of perseverance?”