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Amazing women at Beauty Night

February 9, 2012

Mona is one of the regular visitors to Beauty Night. A warm, attractive and well-spoken Cree lady originally from Alberta and then Mission, BC, she came to the Downtown East Side (DTES) to support her 19-year-old daughter. Fiercely protective, she says at one point, “I will rip off the head of the devil to protect my daughter.”

She loves the feeling of togetherness, sisterhood, and camaraderie that she gets from Beauty Night. “It is a safe , supportive place,” Mona says. “There’s no alcohol, drugs, abuse or violence. When you walk in here you know you are safe.”

When I speak with Mona, she is busy choosing her lip gloss with the help of Martyna Tyszko, one of the regular volunteers. “Not too red.” she warns with a laugh, “Maybe if I was 20. I like to get noticed by my voice, not my lips.” It isn’t so much her voice, as her ready laugh that I notice.

Mona has faced her own personal challenges. She tells me that she is currently in recovery and wants to return to the nursing field. She would also like to find somewhere other than the DTES to live, somewhere safer but, with only $375 a month for rent and $235 for her other needs, that is very difficult. I ask her what will it take to keep her in recovery. “School and keep with positive people”, she replies. “And my spirituality. My spirituality keeps me sane.”

She gives me a great smile when she graciously agrees that I can take her picture. Her beautiful daughter joins her for a second photo. “I have a lot to offer,” Mona says.

And she is right.

Behind every nonprofit there is a vision and a visionary, that person or persons with an idea and the passion to make it happen. For Beauty Night, that person with the vision is Caroline Macgillivray. Her journey started more than 10 years ago when a friend of Caroline wrote a script for a film called “Even Me”, to call awareness to the plight of sex workers, and recruited Caroline to play the main character. The role had a strong and instantaneous impact on her life.

Caroline realized that she had to become involved and started volunteering in 2000 by cooking at WISH Drop-In Centre, a Vancouver organization that promotes the health, safety and well-being of women who work in the survival sex trade. One night, a woman came to WISH, a terrible day behind her, too upset to talk. So Caroline picked up a curling iron and started to curl the woman’s hair. Caroline’s ineptness with the curling iron led to a few laughs and put the woman at ease. The power of human touch in a friendly, safe environment connected them on a personal level, Caroline realized, and a germ of the Beauty Night idea took hold.

Caroline – affectionately called the “Beauty Lady” by the women – found herself in demand as more and more women sought her services. Gradually, more volunteers joined and Beauty Night was born. On December 15, 2000, 14 volunteers worked a Beauty Night event, serving a total of 73 women. It was a huge success, dampened only slightly by the electrical issues caused by having so many hairdryers in one room!

Beauty Night now has over 500 volunteers and helps over 200 women a week. It operates two nights a week out of the Downtown East Side Women’s Centre and also provides services through 30 other organizations. Caroline says they like to partner with like-minded organizations as much as possible as it builds relationships that ultimately improve the availability of services to the women while not duplicating efforts. Its community partners and support include the Vancouver Foundation, UBC Chancellor Grants, the Canadian Medical Association and the Youth And Philanthropy Initiative. All this runs with one and one-half paid staff positions. Beauty Nights’ goals this year include training more facilitators who can then train others to run the various programs and to expand services outside of the City of Vancouver.

Caroline relates studies showing that 1/3 of women have experienced sexual violence before the age of 18 and the average age of entry into street life is 14. For many of the women that Beauty Night serves, they have never known true friendship, have never received positive touch, for good reason do not trust and have difficulty committing to personal relationships. One of the women that Caroline dealt with once asked her what it was like to be a child. She had never had that experience, as the sexual abuse by her father started when she was four years old, continued at the hands of others and at the age of 10 she found herself in the first of a blur of foster homes.

Many women in the Downtown East Side face mental health issues, addiction, HIV and AIDS, violence, acute poverty and violence. Beauty Night provides them with a secure place where they can find friendship, a sympathetic ear and the healing power of the human hand, a place where they can build self-esteem and change their lives.

Caroline, once in training to be an actress, sums up her experience: “Life has a really weird way of changing things and I am really grateful.”

Life has given her a much more important role.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2012 2:26 pm

    What an amazing story. “Beauty Night” must change hundreds of lives.

  2. Scott permalink
    February 9, 2012 10:53 am

    Great story on a great cause. Really amazing how one person’s passion can make such a difference.

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