From couch-surfer to advocate: Cheyanne’s journey to finding safety and belonging


“When I look back on myself as an eight-year-old, I see someone who was working with the resources she had at that time to find safety and find belonging. When we think about homelessness, we think about people on the street, like street involvement, but for me, I was on the other end of the spectrum because I was a kid.”

Childhood wasn’t easy for Cheyanne. By the time she was eight and in third grade, she was wrestling with the trauma of being sexually abused. Life at home was unstable. Her mother, who worked four jobs to make ends meet, was emotionally detached as a single parent who had fled the Sri Lankan civil war and an abusive marriage. Feeling disconnected from her family and Tamil community, Cheyanne found belonging couch-surfing, first with her best friend’s family and then with others in the Guyanese, Jamaican, and Trinidad communities. At 14, she entered the child welfare system.

“When you come from a place of survival, you tend to build a backbone that shouldn’t be there. And so, for me, nobody would have guessed the abuse that I was experiencing at home. Nobody would have guessed what I was going through, what I had been through. Everyone just thought, wow, here’s Cheyenne. She’s cool. Like, she’s very smart and whatever, and I was in every extracurricular activity and so on. So, for me, I think sometimes there’s this romanticization of bravery and courage, but children should just be children.”

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In Canada, there are nearly 300,000 kids across the country at risk of abuse and neglect, and around 59,000 children and youth living in foster care, kinship care with extended family, group care, and treatment facilities. A study on youth homelessness in Canada found that 58% of youth who are homeless reported some type of involvement with child protection services in their lifetime.

Cheyanne entered care by choice, due to the domestic issues she was facing at home. Her experiences in care were positive but she had a lot of healing to do as she worked to define family and rebuild her confidence. A natural leader, she felt an innate sense of responsibility to others like her in care, they may not have been her blood relatives, but they were her siblings. Knowing she would be forced out of care at 18, she was determined to build a family and community.

“I think I was like, 15 or 16, I woke up one day and I said I have a responsibility to these people because if I’m not accountable to these people, I’m not accountable to myself because I’m part of these people. And so, my advocacy and my sense of community and mobilization and animating things started when I was very young, but over time, I’ve built my skills and my credibility, and now if people Google me, they’d be able to look me up. But that started as a lonely person trying to figure out where I belonged and trying to figure out how different people who don’t look like me can be together and belong together and maintain each other’s sanity while we’re going through chaos at the same time.”

Cheyanne’s resourcefulness and passion for strengthening her community have led her to be an advocate for many important issues, including child welfare. She is a founding member of Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada’s Young People’s Advisory Council and is a Foundation ambassador. With the support of the Foundation’s funding, Cheyanne was able to complete her post-secondary education, including her Master of Social Work.

“Being from care, you don’t have stability in terms of relationships, and what’s stood out for me in my own journey with the Foundation is that it has become family for me; it became an extension of myself. And that’s why I’m so passionate about being an advocate and working in philanthropy. The Foundation has always been there for me.”

Reconnected to both her family and community, today, Cheyanne is the co-founder and Executive Lead of the Ontario Children’s Advancement Coalition. Cheyanne is also a public speaker and media commentator. Passionate about youth homelessness, child welfare, childhood sexual abuse, youth development, and more, Cheyanne has been recognized and awarded for her inspiring work in her community.

“Some days I am amazed I was able to accomplish a lot in my short life, let alone still be here standing… still pushing and keeping spaces and systems accountable.”

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