St. John’s woman volunteers with Toronto project
Kaleigh Middelkoop is “nose-deep” in the lives of sex workers in Canada’s biggest city.
Middelkoop, 21, who spent most of her life in St. John’s, is volunteering with the All Saints Church-Community Centre and its Exposure Project, which gives cameras and photography training to women involved in the sex trade.
All Saints Church is located at the corner of Toronto’s Dundas and Sherbourne streets, one of the most dangerous areas in the city’s downtown. From 2005 to 2009, according to the Toronto Star, the intersection had the most robberies and shootings of any in the city.
And it’s right where Middelkoop has been volunteering every week.
“A lot of times, someone will say, ‘Oh that’s a bad part of town,’ so you just avoid it,” she said. “You don’t go in nose-deep into it like I decided to do.”
Middelkoop learned of the project through contacts she made during a work term in university. When she saw the opportunity, she decided to go for it — but it’s the people who keep her coming back.
“The women, definitely, they’re really, really inspiring people,” she says. “It’s really amazing to get to know these women because there’s just this (stigma) put on the sex trade. … These women are just survivors of that.”
From the beginning, it was a shock — a “What have I gotten myself into?” moment, she says. Middelkoop found herself working with people from backgrounds she wasn’t very familiar with.
“I just kind of walk in and there’s people sleeping in the pews and there’s people drunk out of their minds at 11 a.m., just kind of staggering around.
“It was really weird, being put in that situation, but you acclimatize really quickly because you realize that these people are just people. They could be people that I grew up with. They’re still human beings. You don’t treat them any differently than you would your friends.”
The aspiring photographer speaks glowingly — even with a slight tinge of jealousy — about some of the pictures taken by the project’s participants.
“If I wanted to go in and do a photo series on this area, I would (not get) very far. I am a stranger to this area and I’m an intruder in a lot of ways,” Middelkoop said. “These people are part of the community. … They can go out and they can take a picture of 20 grams of crack, and it’s totally normal.
“It’s incredible what happens when you give someone an opportunity that they never would have had before, and seeing how different people take it.”
Her favourite image of the series shows a man dressed in an owl costume, sitting on the church steps feeding pigeons.
“I just looked at it and I was like, ‘This is amazing. I wish I took this shot.’
“That is the ultimate feeling, when you look at something and you wish it had been you that created it.”
There’s a definite contrast in the way she describes first walking into All Saints Church and the way she describes the project’s participants.
“They are not victims. They are survivors,” she says. “They are some of the strongest women that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. They have so much to give, and they are so intelligent and well-rounded people.
“They’ve just been put in the circumstance that … it’s just a series of events that have all come together in a certain way for these people.”
Her experience has changed the way she thinks of the big city.
“I was kind of raised (with) this idea that Toronto was a dog-eat-dog place, everybody was out to get you, everybody was rude. And it’s not,” she says. “Since I’ve been here I started to realize how silly I was for thinking that, because I’ve met so many wonderful people.
“Toronto’s really surprised me, in a good way.”
Middelkoop was born in Nova Scotia, but lived most of her life in St. John’s, and some in Heart’s Content.
She says her Newfoundland roots have stuck with her, even after studying in Ottawa and working in Toronto.
“You can’t ever take the island out of the girl, as lame as that sounds,” she says, laughing. “If people approach me, the first thing I’ll tell them about is where I’m from.”
Middelkoop says the generosity of so many Newfoundlanders left a strong impression on her. One even contributed to her taking up the project.
“I should do this because I can. … I’m not looking to get anything out of it,” she said. “I think you really need that kind of head space to get into something like this.
“Newfoundland has definitely played a huge role in my involvement in this, without me even realizing it.”