Jean Somar: Retiring after 30 Years of Service as Office Manager at the Schlifer Clinic
34 years ago, the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic was founded with the goal of supporting women survivors of violence and helping them re-build their lives in respectful communities that provide a sense of belonging. For 30 out of these 34 years, Jean Somar, the Clinic’s Office Manager has been an important part of the Schlifer family and has been contributing to the creation of a violence-free world for women and girls. Now, in the days preceding her retirement, we invited her to tell us more about her time here and the spirit at the Clinic in its early days.
Q: You have been with the Clinic for 30 years, what did you like about working here?
I find a sense of peace and accomplishment when I can contribute to the well-being of another person, especially a person in distress. Talking to clients, hearing them out, making them feel even a little more reassured at the end of the day – that for me has always been very satisfying.
Q: Did you ever think that you would work here for so long?
No, I came on a year contract, and towards the end of it the Executive Director at the time, Diane Nanarone, told me that the position is available, and that I could have it. I loved the people I was working with and decided to stay. You know, when you start at a new job you always feel as the odd person out, but the beautiful women I worked with were so welcoming and encouraging. They made me feel a part of something bigger.
Q: Since you have been with the Clinic almost from its inception, you must know its founders. What can you tell us about them?
Yes, I met the founders, but I do not know them well, because they were not involved in the daily work of the Clinic. They were friends of Barbra and their grief motivated their commitment to her vision. They were busy fundraising and promoting the mission of the Clinic to serve and protect the rights of marginalized women. The first fundraising event was the publishing and distribution of a cookbook with home recipes that raised about $5000.
Q: What was the spirit in the early days of the Clinic?
Back then, our team was smaller, and relationships were more immediate. It felt like a “fellowship.” We would gather, have coffee and talk about everything that is happening at the Clinic, that needs to be done during the day. We would joke, laugh, share personal stories. The kitchen was the place where everything was brewing. Also, the women who came in for appointments were more open and willing to chat for awhile, share their stories. For me it was motivating to see their needs being met. Nowadays, we have a bigger team and opportunities to catch up with colleagues seem to be fewer. Now people are more focused on their respective roles and tasks. Clients speak strictly to the counsellors or lawyers. Back in the day, we were not that popular, and clients were fewer. It was harder to help clients mostly due to financial constraints, but even so, they were very happy to have our support. Now, we have more clients, but also more resources and types of services available.
Partner abuse or child sexual assault stories were always hard to hear. At one point, I worked with the lawyers taking notes on the client’s stories. I was witnessing their pain first-hand, but I was also witnessing the hope, the growth, and the successes. In later years, in the role of the Office Manager, I have had less opportunity for direct contact with clients, and I have missed that.
Q: Does anyone stand out in your memory as especially inspiring?
Everyone was very genuine and kind, but I had a special relationship with two of the women. Mary Lou Fassel was a lawyer at the Clinic, and Lorry Bryson was an intake worker. Lorry had to teach me how to use a computer! She had the gentlest voice and sense of humour. She made you feel like you never have to worry about a thing. The same was with Mary Lou. I was always welcome to sit and talk to her for whatever burdened my mind.
Q: For all the years you have worked at the Clinic, are there any success stories that stand out for you?
We were always short on money, that is why the opening of Interpreter Services Toronto – the social purpose enterprise arm of the Clinic, was a great step forward. Interpreter Services Toronto introduced some financial stability to the Clinic, but also increased the variety of clients to whom we could offer service. We became more flexible, and women got more help. It was exciting to be able to offer more and more throughout the years. Every small step was a joy for us – tokens, food vouchers, interpretation, childcare, transitional housing. Every one of these was gained with hard work and advocacy. The growth of the Clinic was a step by step process.
Q: What was the most gratifying part of your job?
Being here and seeing the changes in women because of the help they got. Their ability to go out in the world and lead independent, dignified lives, and feel good about themselves. Seeing them happy, strong and hopeful, rather than feeling lost and isolated, was what kept me going in this job for so many years.
Q: What is your take-away after having devoted a lifetime to social justice work?
I met wonderful, talented women who were inspiring in so many ways. Their inspiration helped me to become a better person. Being here and witnessing the transformation in clients, the comradery of the staff, the evolution of the Clinic and the assertion of its mission in the wider community, made me more appreciative of life. I feel humbled and grateful to have the ability to laugh, have hope and love. In the beginning I didn’t think that I would have the stamina to survive the constant exposure to trauma, but my work taught me that, regardless of trauma, there is so much beauty in life. Witnessing how people overcome hardships and achieve harmony has been a very enriching experience.
Q: Are you looking forward to having more time for yourself and your loved ones?
Yes, I am looking forward to venturing out there and start exploring the world anew. I will take a hobby, do crafts, devote more time to my friends, children, grandchild, see what other things I can learn and enjoy. My first task will be to learn to make stuffed animals. But…I have to tell you… these 30 years have gone by so fast…has it really been 30 years?!