09/07/2012 07:12 EDT | Updated 09/07/2012 10:49 EDT

Our Greatest Person: Michelle Coombs Of Elizabeth Fry Toronto


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:

Photo gallery Greatest Person: Everyday People Doing Extraordinary Things See Gallery