There was a moment in Tanya Roberts’ life that changed how empathetic she became to social and environmental issues.
Looking back to the first time she saw a homeless person, Roberts had the feeling she wanted to save the world. She was a young girl at the time having an innocent reaction to people less fortunate.
“This is a normal thing for any kid to make a connection with, but I think just really knowing where you want to make an impact in the world and setting your attention because you can get side-railed,” said Roberts, who is Durham College’s sustainability coordinator.
Another moment which altered Roberts’ outlook was undertaking social work while traveling abroad.
She experienced the impact first-hand in Guatemala watching families living out of a dump struggle to meet basic necessities.
“They had families, a community literally of shacks they had built around this landfill. The men would go and scavenge and work in the landfill and then the women and the children were taking care of these shack homes,” she said. “I remember going into the community one time and just seeing how they were cooking without ventilation. The kids were covered in soot.”
The experience opened Roberts’ eyes to the social inequalities and the severe issues around good health and well-being.
“I feel so fortunate to be born and raised in Canada,” she said.
Upon Roberts’ return, she felt obligated to switch from studying international development at York University to environmental studies.
From there, her intense drive to make a positive impact for people facing hardships grew. She seized an opportunity to work as a supervisor at an emergency services family shelter in the ‘inner city’ streets of Chicago a “culture shock” for Roberts. She described her role when she arrived as being thrown on a moving treadmill and trying to catch her feet.
But there is one memory from her experience in Chicago that acts as a constant reminder of her desire to help those less fortunate.
“There was this one little girl and she was so smart and bright and she was this little light and she was so positive,” she said, remembering the deep connection she felt.
Roberts’ was inspired by the young girl’s inner radiance, which helped her overcome all the barriers and limitations of poverty.
“She was the greatest example for me when I look back in all of my social work training,” said Roberts. “I just look back at her.”
Roberts never imagined she would learn such a valuable lesson she could use in her own life from a little girl living under such dire circumstances.
“I literally just wanted to take her home when I went to say goodbye,” said Roberts.
Moving forward in her career, Roberts remains socially conscious and has a humanistic and sympathetic approach to environmental issues.