How YWCA Hamilton’s STEP program changes lives

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Three years ago, Emma Farr started a program that changed her life.

“I was having a really hard time in life,” she said. “I wasn’t doing too good, and I didn’t have that much job experience.”

Emma signed up for an employment program at YWCA Hamilton, which led her to an on-the-job placement at the Casual Gourmet kitchen store in Westdale. Today, she still works at the store as an employee, is studying in a pre-health program, and is working toward a nursing degree.

“I got my life back on track,” she said. “I’m really glad the program existed, because I needed it, where I was at, so badly. It just helped me get a bunch of skills that I still use.”

Emma is one of the many students who has had a placement at the Casual Gourmet through our Strategic Training and Employment (STEP) program, a no-cost course that’s open to any young woman or non-binary youth aged 15 to 30 years old. It helps young people experiencing barriers to employment gain valuable skills in industries they’re interested in, and offers on-the-job, paid training.

Each participant receives up to six weeks of one-on-one job preparation and support to help them prepare to enter the workforce. This could mean anything from First Aid and CPR training, Health and Safety courses, or Smart Serve and Safe Food Handling certification, as well as life skills training, resume building, and interview prep.

The program also includes up to 14 weeks of paid job placement, funded by Employment and Skills Development Canada.

Three women wearing masks stand in the middle of a kitchen store.
Ilona, centre, with Desteny, left, and STEP participant Shayne, right.

Ilona Santa, co-owner of the Casual Gourmet, says she co-owner Tanis have welcomed STEP program participants since they purchased the business five years ago.

“It can be an act in patience and understanding, but in the end it’s really rewarding. It makes us really happy when we see them progress and move onto to other jobs,” said Ilona.

“Tanis and I have always been big on wanting to give back. We really appreciate the support of the community in terms of shopping local, and it just feels really good to help somebody.”

Desteny, a 19-year-old STEP participant currently working at Casual Gourmet, says she was in a difficult place before she was accepted into the program. Desteny dropped out of school in Grade 11, couldn’t find a job, and was struggling to get by on social assistance.

“We just were making ends meet,” she said.

She spotted an ad for the STEP program on a Caremongering Facebook group. Her reaction, she said, was “Sign me up right now.”

Desteny says she loves working at the Casual Gourmet, and that Ilona and the YWCA Hamilton team have helped her get her life back on track.

“All the help and support that you get from the workers and everybody – you get so much support. I was homeless on Thanksgiving. They were right there trying to help me find a place, giving me grocery gift cards, clothing, keeping in contact with shelters,” she said, adding that she has now found a room.

“I found this amazing job that I wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for the STEP program.”

If you’re interested in participating in the STEP program, or if you’re an employer who would like to get involved, contact Deborah at 905-719-1474 or email

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