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Heidi Lee has been with Sancta Maria House for 24 years. Photo by Joshua Santos

Counsellor turns the hurt to a help

  • October 5, 2019

When Heidi Lee speaks, the young women at Sancta Maria House listen.


They know that Lee can relate to the problems they are suffering, knowing that she once had many of the same issues after suffering through an abusive marriage for five and a half years when she was younger.

Established in 1961, Sancta Maria House in Toronto is a safe haven for young women from 16 to 19, providing them access to psychologists, counsellors, therapists, psychiatrists and social workers. These are women coming from all sorts of backgrounds, neighbourhoods and lifestyles but all have similar stories of pain, fear, abuse and generational trauma leading to a mental illness. 

Lee has worked with the home since 1995 and is a residential counsellor and after-care co-ordinator. Lee opens up about her experiences when she talks with residents at the shelter who are going through similar situations.

“I was packing my stuff up, and ran to the window,” said Lee. “That’s what the girls talk about when they’re trying to sneak out of the house to leave an abusive home.” 

Her contributions with SMH earned her the Fr. Paul Lennon and Doreen Cullen Scholarship award presented by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto. It is named in honour of two former executive directors of the organization. She was presented a $5,000 cheque by Lennon at a ceremony at Providence Health Care recently. The money will come in handy as she studies for a Master of Social Work degree at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo.

“It was a great honour,” said Lee. “I didn’t know anything much about the scholarship fund until Michael Fullan (executive director of Catholic Charities) got in touch with me and asked me to apply for this scholarship.” 

Lee was born in Trinidad and Tobago. She first visited Canada in August 1986 with some friends for a three-week vacation. She made more trips to Canada before deciding to leave Trinidad and Tobago for good in 1988. She found work as a nanny before embarking on her ill-fated marriage.

Despite the setbacks, she completed a Bachelor of Social Work degree from the University of Manitoba and a Child Youth Worker diploma from George Brown College. She was introduced to SMH when she was placed there as part of her course at George Brown. Afterwards, she was offered a full-time position at the shelter at the same time another job came up with the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB).

Lee remembered that she sought advice from former SMH executive director Patricia Cooper. 

“She sat down with me and said take the job at the school board, you will always have shifts at Sancta Maria House.”

Lee ended up worked full-time at the school board while spending any extra time she had at SMH. 

“This a place where once you work here, that’s it,” said Lee with a laugh. “I’ve come and go. I did relief, I did full-time contracts at one point in time. Came and left a couple of years and Sonia (Layne, executive director) asked for me to come back.” As co-ordinator of the after-care program, she provides support and referrals for girls to receive community services and helps former residents of the house who need ongoing services. Reshawn Jeffers Hunter, assistant director at Sancta Maria House, has known Lee for 15 years. 

“She is enthusiastic, she never backs down from a challenge, and she goes the extra mile,” said Hunter. “And she makes it look so easy. I admire Heidi’s commitment to SMH for the past 20 years. She has always been dedicated to the work of serving youth, young women in particular at SMH, with compassion, love and humour.”

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