After struggles with her mental health led her down a dark path, Shawnna Hastings-Downey is taking control of her life.
Hastings-Downey is a client of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, which works with women and gender-diverse people to address barriers and the root causes of criminalization.
“Some of the challenges that I faced was having deteriorating mental health through COVID and not being able to get the proper medical attention that I needed,” Hastings-Downey told Global News.
“That was a big barrier and that led up to my involvement in the criminal justice system.”
But since getting involved with the Elizabeth Fry Society in December 2020, Hastings-Downey said she’s doing “much better.”
She is one of several society clients who have found structure and purpose through working at The Abundance Store, a recently opened thrift shop tucked away on Queen Street in downtown Dartmouth.
Being able to gain work experience and work directly with members of the community has been a “beautiful thing,” she said.
“It’s a beautiful little space, it’s very artistic,” Hastings-Downey said. “It’s really nice to be able to do these things with people and to work on skills, and especially skills for retail and things like that.”
Healing through art
It’s also given her the opportunity to pursue one of her passions — painting — and selling her prints through the store. Other Elizabeth Fry clients sell their art at the Abundance Store as well.
“I feel that it’s really important, mental-health wise, to be able to express myself,” Hastings-Downey said.
“Through the Elizabeth Fry Society and all these wonderful individuals, I am learning to express myself in empowering ways.”
Hastings-Downey lives with cerebral palsy and has taught herself to paint with her non-dominant hand.
During a tour of the store, she held up a picture she painted of a colourful peacock, meant to symbolize her blooming confidence.
“You know how peacocks will kind of fan out their tail feathers? That’s kind of what I tried to accomplish in this piece,” she said.
Kaleigh Smith, the program coordinator for the Elizabeth Fry Society’s Abundance Program, said it can be difficult for people with criminal records to find employment after release.
“While you’re inside (an institution), you start losing those life skills, and honestly, sometimes these women haven’t been able to develop life skills because of immense trauma and turbulent development,” Smith said.
“Unemployment, inequity in education, lack of housing, all contribute to criminalization, so having something that addresses it helps support them along their recovery journey and will eliminate the recidivism that we often see sometimes.”
The store, which opened in April, is staffed by three employees of the Elizabeth Fry Society, as well as four clients. All of the clothes in stock come from donations, she said.
“Every single dollar made from here will go back into being able to pay our women to work here, helping them afford paying for a seat in their academic endeavours of choice, stuff like that,” Smith said.
Smith said the lease on the building is paid for through grants, and they are in the process of applying for further funding to pay their clients more consistently.
Clients of the Elizabeth Fry Society can get clothes there for free, but Smith noted that it’s important for them to keep prices low for the community as well.
“Right now, everybody is experiencing the unaffordability of life,” she said.
“Everyone needs clothes, so having something that’s affordable and attainable is definitely of great importance.”
‘Recovery is possible’
Meanwhile, Hastings-Downey is enjoying her new lease on life, gaining more confidence and skills every day.
Working at the store “really helped me to express myself, express my needs and know that I have a voice and that my voice is worthwhile,” she said.
Hastings-Downey is currently enrolled in a disability support and services program at the Nova Scotia Community College, with the goal of eventually working with children with disabilities — something she says wouldn’t have been possible without the support she’s received through the Abundance Program.
She has a message for others who may have gone through similar situations.
“You are capable, you are strong, you are brave,” she said.
“Just because you’ve had bad experiences doesn’t mean that you can’t make something of your life and get the support you need.
“I never had the proper support before, and I just want people to know that recovery is possible and this is a beautiful, beautiful place.”