Rafal Tomczuk started to walk for his mother. It was a gift for her birthday, which fell on the date of YWCA Hamilton's Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, a fundraiser for abused women who are looking for a way out.
Seventeen years ago, he left Poland with his mother. They left an abusive father behind, starting a new life in Canada. That first walk three years ago was a gift for his mother. The $200 he and a friend raised three years ago was a gift to the YWCA Hamilton's Transitional Living Program, which gives some 150 women a year an out from an abusive relationship.
The next year, he raised $600.
"This year, we're shy of $10,000," Tomczuk said with a smile.
Backed by more than 20 supporters from St. Joseph's Hospital where Tomczuk works as a nurse, the 34-year-old led the parade of more than 200 people walking in heels around Gore Park to raise funds for the YWCA Thursday.
"I grew up in an abusive household, that's why (I'm) doing it. I'm trying to make a difference for other people to have a safe household to grow up in," Tomczuk said.
"I'm trying to get empowered through that and I'm trying to make a difference. That's why I'm doing this."
But there's also another reason. He's seen the effect at home in his family, but also at work.
"As a nurse in the ER, I see a lot of women that we can immediately help, we can help them with their injury, but then after we send them home back to their old story," Tomczuk said.
"And it's heartbreaking. That's why its very important for us as professionals to change it, to provide them with a safe environment, to give them a second chance in life, to give them coaching, to give them money for school so they can start their life over."
He called the support from his colleagues and St. Joe's "overwhelming."
Brent Bondden, paramedic who heard about Tomczuk's story, felt compelled to join in.
"I thought, we see a lot of that as front line workers. I'm a paramedic in Hamilton … There's a tremendous need to support that in this community," Bondden said.
Harder than it looks
As for the bright red heels, provided by YWCA organizers, Bondden says it's harder than it looks.
"Actually, I have a newfound respect for wearing stilettos," Bondden said. "I hope I don't do a nose dive in the pavement."
The YWCA's Transitional Living Program has 65 beds for women who can stay up to 11 months. It gives women a chance to settle in a new home and rebuild their lives and identity. Organizers say they've served women as young as 16 years old in the program.
Their goal was to raise $50,000 for the one-day event. Before the race, donations were still bring brought up, and they had hit 85 per cent of their goal, or $42,500.
Tomczuk raised $5,000 himself, with his colleagues matching his own effort.
"I didn't think that we were going to come to this point," Tomczuk said. "From two people walking trying to make a difference and to have the team and community behind you, that believes in your story, that's really heartwarming."