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HSH's Sara Cumming earns Rising Star Alumni Award



Home Suite Hope Executive Director Sara Cumming was recognized with the University of Waterloo’s 2023 Rising Star Alumni Award. Sara was recognized for her HSH work and her ability of finding creative ways to build ties with the community. Sara's doctoral research at Waterloo laid the foundation for her work at Home Suite Hope and at Sheridan College where she's an award-winning sociology professor – all against her own lived experience as a single parent.


"As Executive Director of Home Suite Hope, Sara Cumming designs programs to help unhoused single mothers put together the crucial pieces they need: housing, jobs, childcare and more. These programs have led to lasting impact for single mothers and their children. Sara is also known for finding creative ways to build ties with the community: sourcing grocery donations for students during lockdown, brokering temporary residences at Sheridan College for Ukrainian refugees. For her current project, the Community Ideas Factory, she's working with 16 local organizations to build a life skills course that can be used and adopted by community organizations across Canada.


Sara's doctoral research at Waterloo laid the foundation for her work at Home Suite Hope and at Sheridan College where she's an award-winning sociology professor. But she also credits her insights to her own experience as the daughter of a single teen mom and a former single mother herself."


Waterloo University Faculty of Arts did a Q&A with Sara - click the link or read below:


Supporting single mothers with a wraparound approach

Q and A with Sara J. Cumming (PhD ’14 Sociology) Executive Director of Home Suite Hope, and the Faculty of Arts 2023 Rising Star Alumni Award recipient By Faculty of Arts


As the daughter of a single teen mom, and a former young single mother herself, Dr. Sara Cumming (PhD ’14, Sociology) knows the challenges her clients face at Home Suite Hope. As executive director of the Halton organization, Cumming designs programs to help unhoused single mothers put together the crucial pieces they need: housing, jobs, childcare and more. Cumming’s doctoral research at Waterloo laid the foundation for her work there and at Sheridan College, where she’s an award-winning sociology professor. Cumming is known for finding creative ways to build ties with the community: sourcing grocery donations for students during lockdown, brokering temporary residences at Sheridan for Ukrainian refugees. For her current project, the Community Ideas Factory, she’s working with 16 local organizations to build a life skills course that can be used and adapted by community organizations across Canada. From your research and personal experience, what are the critical factors in helping single mothers achieve self-sufficiency?

Safe and affordable housing is key. When a vulnerable person or family feels secure in their housing, they can start to work on all the other issues in their lives. We need to understand the importance of wraparound approaches—those that wrap many services around individuals, rather than requiring them to find each service themselves. For single mothers particularly, that can mean access to subsidized childcare, education and employment that addresses gender barriers in the labour market, and trauma-based counselling and mentorship. The approaches taken should also come from an equity and inclusivity perspective.

Could you tell us about the importance of gender studies in your teaching, research and advocacy?

My academic career was really fueled by my personal circumstances. When I entered university, I was the single mother of two young girls and the child of a teenage single mother. For most of my childhood I was raised on social assistance in a very small apartment with no access to transportation. It was through my academic pursuits that I came to understand the ways in which gender had informed and influenced all aspects of my life—the ways in which our lives have been constructed primarily around these preconceived notions of what it means to be born female or male. The participants in my program at Home Suite Hope have difficult lives primarily because they were born female. Many have been the victims of sexual and/or domestic violence. They are simultaneously expected to be with their young children and work full time to support them. To add to societal judgement, women are less likely to have access to high-paying employment while they are single parenting. Most social policies have been written in ways that are gender blind, yet have the biggest impact on women, especially single mothers. Many women with access to high-paying employment feel that gender imbalances are changing and that women have more equal access to everything now—however, there is a real class division here.

Reflecting on your time as a PhD student at Waterloo, what was a particularly valuable aspect of those years — academically, socially, or otherwise?

I was fortunate enough to get into Columbia Lake—the campus townhouses for students with families. This was an amazing experience for me and my children, living in a large community of individuals all balancing school and household/family responsibilities. Neighbours traded childcare with each other, had study parties and potlucks while all our children played together in a very safe setting. It allowed me the security to get through the PhD despite my single mother status. During my time in the Sociology and Legal Studies department I made lifelong friends with other PhD and master’s students and have stayed in constant contact with a few of the professors. This safe and affordable housing, in conjunction with the social supports I was able to attain, are what stand out most for me.

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