Vicki Roraph

When women who have been subjected to abuse or violence are ready to move on with their lives, Vickie Roraph is there with hug coupons and the Bridges employment program.

There are two signs on the door of Vickie Roraph’s office: Build Bridges, Not Walls and Attitude + Ambition = Achievement. As I take in the messages, a female student strolls by on her way to the morning coffee break, smiles at Vickie and gives her two thumbs up. Others wander by, echoing the sentiment with comments like, “she’s great” and “awesome program.” It is only day eight of the program, and already these women are hooked.

No surprise. One step into the office and I am instantly drawn by Vickie’s warm smile and direct gaze. Surrounded by positive, calming art, bookshelves jammed with self care books, an overflowing candy dish next to yellow tulips from a colleague, she uses an empathic tone and expressive hands to describe her passion for the job.

“Every day is different,” she says, “challenging but hugely rewarding. Sometimes it can be frustrating. You find yourself wanting something more than the client does.”

Vickie uses the analogy of a butterfly. “When the women come to the program they are in a cocoon.” Her challenge is not to rip the cocoon off before the students are ready for the next step. “I have to let them go at their own speed.”

Women come to the Bridges Program via referrals from doctors, psychologists, mental and physical health workers, alcohol and drug counsellors or transition houses. But the best marketing tool is informal; former grads eager to share their success with others.

“I ask them to bring two things to the program on day one,” says Vickie. “An open mind and a lunch. Many of the women are not used to eating a healthy breakfast and lunch. They need to put gas in the tank,” she says. “We focus on life-management skills, career exploration and educational planning.

“This program is some of the best spent provincial dollars. It has a ripple effect, helping women to make positive change in their lives and in the lives of their children.”

Started in Vernon in 1980 by Penny Clayton as a one-week session called Choices, Bridges has blossomed into 26-week programs held all over BC. Twelve years ago, after the program had been cancelled for two years due to lack of provincial funds, Vickie brought her dedication and expertise as a certified life skills facilitator.

“The first challenge was marketing. Letting people know the program was back,” she says. Long hours and persistence paid off. “In Vernon, service providers such as the Family Resource Centre, Gathering Place and Interior Mental Health support each other. It’s wonderful, like a breath of fresh air.”

Where does she find the energy? Vickie leans forward, her blue eyes intense as she tells the story of strength gained from her childhood spent in poverty. She grew up on a small farm and didn’t live in a house with running water until she got married. The youngest of 11 children whose father died before she started school, Vickie credits her mom with teaching her to have a positive impact on the lives of others. “She was hugely respected by all in the community,” Vickie says.

Born in Maple Ridge, Vickie moved to Enderby in 1974 and has been a strong supporter of community ever since. She co-founded Enderby Women In Business, spearheaded the acquisition of the first Jaws-of-Life for the town and has been involved with Girl Guides, The Legion, Lions, Learning Disabilities Association and literacy groups. In 2000 she was coordinator of Children’s Day where almost 1,000 youth walked in a nationally televised parade wearing T-shirts illustrating the developmental needs of children.

Dressed in a no-nonsense charcoal suit, Vickie is a firm believer in teaching by role modelling. “In order to be successful, people need to be honest with themselves and honest with others,” she says. With students and in family relationships Vickie’s mantra is mutual respect. Her 44-year marriage to Jerry is a telling example of this philosophy. “I’m blessed to be doing what I do for a living,” Vickie says.

And the program is lucky to have her. Between 1993 and 2008, 314 women attended Bridges—81 per cent secured employment or returned to school or training within six months. Vickie says with pride, “There’s not a girl who goes through the program who does not grow.”

Photo by Barry Hodgins