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Meet Brenda Benham – DFSV Advocate and Lifelong Volunteer

Brenda Benham has been volunteering with Dress for Success Vancouver (DFSV) for more than ten years. After stepping down when her term as Board Chair ended, she formed the Professional Women’s Group (PWG) Alumni group. This group meets nine times per year as a network of support and continued learning. On top of coordinating the PWG Alumni, she works for the BC Securities Commission and spends her free time deeply entrenched in Vancouver’s classical and folk music scenes.

What brought you to Dress for Success Vancouver?
In late 2004, I was finishing a huge project at BC Securities Commission to rewrite BC securities law. As we were finishing the project, I got a note from a friend who was involved with DFSV. She said, “I’m sending this to the 20 busiest women I know because I know you’ll get stuff done. I am looking for people to help with a new fundraiser called The Challenge.” This note arrived at exactly the right time. After the big project, I wanted a job that wouldn’t be quite so all-consuming so that I could give back to the community and have time for my family. I responded to that note and joined the committee organising the first Challenge. The Challenge was a fundraiser targeted at corporations initially to raise awareness of the Impact Event a month or so later, to broaden the fundraising base, and to have fun learning about DFSV. The second year on the Challenge Committee, I was invited to chair the committee and join the board. I was on the board for a total of six years, two of which were as chair of the board.

Outside of the work you do for Dress for Success Vancouver, what do you do?
I work at the BC Securities Commission. I’m a lawyer by training, but I’m now in a position as Senior Corporate Communications Advisor, which draws on my legal background to help organise industry events and write our annual report. I also give speeches to retirees and pre-retirees on how to protect themselves from fraud and unsuitable investments.

What are you doing now with Dress for Success Vancouver?
Right now I am the volunteer coordinator for the Professional Women’s Group Alumni.

At that first moment that your friend asked for your help, did you expect your work with Dress for Success Vancouver would become so long-lasting?
I had no idea when I was first approached that I would turn into a lifelong volunteer for DFSV. When I joined the board, I was invited to attend a meeting of PWG and I fell in love with that part of DFSV’s operations. When I stepped down as Chair of the Board, I wanted to stay involved. And I knew I loved PWG. I looked at PWG and wondered what I could do. They didn’t really need me as they had plenty of mentors, and a volunteer speaker coordinator. I remembered hearing at the previous three or four graduation lunches from at least half the women there, “This is a bittersweet moment for me. I have loved being in the program, and loved everything I’ve learned, but I’ll really miss the group.”

So I did a survey that went out to everyone who had ever graduated at the time. The survey asked whether they would like to meet more often than twice a year (at the August picnic and at the winter holiday event). Did they want to meet more regularly? Did they want more internal or external speakers? Did they want ya-yas? (I hoped for a “yes” answer because, in my view, that’s the best part.) If they wanted a regular meeting, would they be willing to volunteer?

Luckily, the majority said they were interested in more frequent meetings and definitely wanted Ya-Yas (over 90%). A sufficient number said they were willing to volunteer and sent me their emails.

In the summer of ’09, I held a meeting for volunteers, and came with a list of what we needed: a free space to meet, someone to look after internal speakers, someone to look after external speakers, someone to facilitate meetings, etc. With PWG Alumni members taking on those tasks, we started in October ’09. It’s been going ever since—9 meetings a year, September to November and January to June. During the summer we have no official meetings, but there’s the picnic for PWG and Alumni members and, for the past few years, I have organized a hike for the Alumni members and their friends and family members at Lighthouse Park.

What does a PWG Alumni meeting look like?
PWG Alumni is essentially run by its members as volunteers. I coordinate, but the members themselves are the facilitators of the meetings. For example, it was a member who found our meeting space. Right now, I’m organising the internal speakers but that will change once we get a member who is willing to take on that task.

At each meeting: the first big part is ya-yas—something good that has happened since the last meeting. So it might be: I passed my probationary period, or I got a promotion, or I went back to my home country for the first time in twenty years, or my son graduated Sauder Business School. It doesn’t have to be work-related; it just has to be something good. The one that still sticks with me is one that I heard many years ago: a woman my age—over fifty—said, “My ya-ya this month is that I passed my probationary period and,for the first time in my life, I have a permanent job.”

We alternate between internal speakers and external speakers. External speakers are people who aren’t part of the PWG Alumni group and have something to speak about that will benefit our members. Internal speakers (women in PWG Alumni) can either provide training on something they know about, or tell their own stories. These are the types of speakers at the PWG graduations, women who tell their own stories.

Usually we end with a poem; we have a couple of amazing poets in our group. But it’s not always written by a group member. We’ve had several Iranian group members bring in poems by ancient Persian poets, translated into English. Somehow, it’s quite amazing. No matter the source, the poem almost always reinforces the speeches that have been given.

Do you have any advice for women starting as clients or PWG members?
Take advantage of everything you’re being offered. If you are invited to join PWG, leap at the chance. As a PWG member, use the mentors, who often don’t get used until near the end of the 18 months. Also, recognize the benefit of having people you can relate to within the group. That’s why I started the PWG Alumni, partly to continue the training; but equally, if not more importantly, continue to provide a peer support group like PWG.

And any advice for volunteers or mentors?
It’s a wonderful thing to do. I’m inspired every single time I go to one of the meetings; and I learn every time I go to the meetings. So between learning and inspiration… volunteering is a critically important thing to do. It’s also great for networking; for finding a new job; for meeting new people who can help you in so many ways. No matter what your day is like, you listen to what these women have been through, and your problems are no longer problems. That’s a useful lesson to be reminded of regularly.

If you could compress Dress for Success Vancouver’s program into one sentence—or one word—what would it be?

For me, it would be something like: helping women get a job, but also thriving in their career and in life.

What is your favourite DFS Vancouver event?
I love PWG orientation, the PWG grad meeting, and then all of the PWG Alumni meetings. For me, it’s the events that involve the clients that are the best.

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