For Michelle Coombs, executive director of Elizabeth Fry Toronto, work has always been most meaningful when it has the potential to change someone's life.

Early in her career, she helped adults with developmental disabilities learn basic skills like brushing their teeth or crossing the road. Then she worked in subsidized housing, giving previously homeless people a sense of community.

Now 43, Coombs works at Elizabeth Fry Toronto, helping support women who have had run-ins with criminal justice or face that risk. But while the organization changes women’s lives, the times are also changing. New pressures have arisen in the past few years that make assisting at-risk women more challenging.

For instance, at a time when a poor economy weighs on all organizations, the government has put charitable institutions such as hers under a microscope, Coombs says.

“There’s extra pressure to find additional resources to do the work. And then you’re coming under greater scrunity as a charity,” she explained. “I don’t think it’s actually telling anybody what a great job charities are doing.”

So in a way, it’s part of Coombs’ job to spread the word about how Elizabeth Fry Toronto assists roughly 5,000 women a year. She oversees daily operations, including managing a staff that handles program enhancement, human resources and finances, to name a few. She also engages and educates her community, and imagines the organization’s next big steps according to larger challenges that arise.

One monumental challenge recently cropped up: Bill C-10, the Harper government’s omnibus crime bill, which passed in spring 2012 and imposes tougher penalties and more restrictions for various offenders. While it’s early to analyze the fledgling legislation’s effects, Coombs expects it won’t just be tough on crime – it will be tough on criminalized women, who most often commit crimes related to poverty and are the primary caregivers in their families.

“When a woman is impacted, the children are impacted, and if children go into child protective services, the chances of them ending up in the criminal justice system are greater. It’s a perpetual cycle that can happen in families,” she said.

Criminalizing women can also have detrimental effects on their job prospects and on the economy.

“If more people end up having records, that’s more people who may have difficulty finding employment,” Coombs pointed out, particularly as women are more likely than men to apply for jobs that require background checks.

Not to mention incarcerating a woman can cost $150,000 per year or more, excluding costs for rehabilitation and transition back into society, Coombs notes.

Her solution? In a word: prevention. Although Elizabeth Fry Toronto, as well as offices for the organization across the country, have consistently worked to find alternatives to the criminal justice system and educate the public, it has focused more intently on those solutions over the past three years.

And to hear Coombs tell it, such initiatives are just one part of the organization’s success story; people devoted to the cause are the real life-changers.

“The incredible strength that everyone has had along the way... (and) the commitment that people have exhibited to do this work is incredible to me,” she said.

SEE: Greatest Canadians -- ordinary people doing extraordinary things:

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    An intellectual property lawyer and engineer by day, Gould's passion also lies in his talented performances of puppetry, ventriloquism and theatrical production. All the shows he has performed have been for hundreds of charity or non-profits that benefit children. While his main focus is making kids smile, he regularly performs magic shows for developmentally-disabled adults as well. As a man responsible for fostering contagious laughter, it's no wonder <a href="" target="_hplink"> he's a recent recipient of the Governor General Canadian Caring Award for 2012</a>.

  • Linda Chamberlain

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  • Pam Palmater

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  • David Granirer

    Vancouver counselor and author David Granirer performs and teaches stand-up comedy to people coping with mental illnesses as a way of building their confidence and to fight the public stigma, prejudice and discrimination that surrounds mental health. He created and leads <a href="" target="_hplink">Stand Up For Mental Health (SMH)</a>, where he helps people transform their problems into comedy; attendees then perform their acts at conferences, treatment centres and various mental health organizations. As someone diagnosed with depression himself, Granirer recognizes the importance behind the humour: "[This is] incredibly empowering and a great way of fighting public stigma," he says.

  • Helen Campbell

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  • Leo Baskatawang

    This University of Manitoba graduate student is walking across Canada (from Vancouver to Ottawa) with a copy of the Indian Act chained to him. His purpose? <a href="" target="_hplink">To call on the federal government to make changes to the act and to raise awareness about federal policy and legislation that relates to Canada's Aboriginal peoples</a>. Baskatawang's motivation for this four and a half month journey was when a January meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Assembly of First Nations failed to provide a blueprint for massive social and economic change for Aboriginals. HuffPost Canada's Impact Launch will mark Day 100 of <a href="" target="_hplink">Baskatawang's March 4 Justice</a>.

  • Heather Jarvis And Sonya Barnett

    When a Toronto Police officer suggested publicly that women avoid "dressing like sluts" to prevent rape, Heather Jarvis and Sonya Barnett kicked into action. They co-founded <a href="" target="_hplink">SlutWalk</a>, a protest and march against victim-blaming and sex-shaming in society. SlutWalk held its first march in May 2011, and the movement went viral, with <a href="" target="_hplink">SlutWalks organized in the U.S</a>., <a href=",8599,2086142,00.html" target="_hplink">UK, Australia and India</a>. SlutWalk Toronto celebrated its first anniversary in May with its <a href="" target="_hplink">second annual walk</a>.

  • Elaine McGee

    When teaching at an adult education centre, St. Colomban Quebec's Elaine McGee realized the hardships that accompany going back to school as a single parent.<a href="" target="_hplink"> In 2002, she created "Marchant à tes côtés" (Walking by Your Side), a foundation that helps young single mothers finish their studies</a>. McGee helps to assist these women financially and emotionally; the foundation provides a service where two people can "adopt" a student and her child until the mother has finished college. When she's not helping the women with their studies, she's busy acting as a counsellor to students at risk of dropping out of school.

  • Ryan Claude Walker

    Hailing from Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Ryan Claude Walker can often be identified in a white beard and red and white suit. Each Christmas, he has dressed up as Santa Claus and distributed thousands of gifts to the children and adults in his community. When he's not ensuring everyone from Tuktoyaktuk has a merry merry christmas, he volunteers for a number of other activities.

  • Max Sidorov

    When 25 year-old Toronto nutritionist <a href="" target="_hplink">Max Sidorov</a> saw the video of the brutal bullying that Karen Hull Klein, a 68-year old grandmother and bus monitor from New York state, endured at the hands of four middle-school students, he had to act. The York graduate <a href="" target="_hplink">started a fund on IndieGoGo</a> hoping to give Klein a 'vacation of a lifetime.' And boy, did he ever. The 30-day campaign went viral and raised $703,833 in total -- $698,833 more than Sidorov's original $5,000 goal. What's next for the two, who recently met for the first time in June (see video above)? Klein has said she <a href="" target="_hplink">will retire from her job as bus monitor</a>, and other good samaritans <a href="" target="_hplink"> started a fund for Sidorov to 'pay it forward</a>,' raising more than $7,000 in his name.

  • Brandon Hay

    This Toronto-area father of three has harnessed his own dark memories of his absent father and is attempting to break the cycle. Tackling the unspoken topic of black fatherhood, Hay founded the <a href="" target="_hplink">Black Daddies Club</a> in 2006 to provide other like-minded fathers with parenting resources and support. <a href="" target="_hplink">By turning apathy into action, he is changing the face of fathers across the country</a>.

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