Lia Grimanis

Up With Women Founder and Chairperson
Turning Point: Going public wiuth her Homeless past

imgShe sat on the bed in the shelter and started to cry. Lia Grimanis was sixteen years old and homeless. A violent home life meant she couldn't go back. But how would she move forward? She had hidden an old miracle whip jar in her bedroom and had watched the coins and paper money slowly fill the empty space. But it wasn't enough to rent an apartment and buy groceries. "The only future I saw was a black hole," Lia recalls. "That night I knew I never wanted to be vulnerable like that again. I decided I would become a role model. I wanted to be the person that came back to the shelter and said, 'I made it'."

From a shelter, to welfare to starting her own business, Lia moved quickly. She began to run a rickshaw in downtown Toronto, a service that catered to tourists and late night partiers. She started her own business and built a fleet of rickshaws, even learning how to weld so she could put the buggies together herself. Building on that success, she moved into technology sales and was soon making $250,000 a year. When she wasn't working Lia pushed herself in the off hours too, learning to play the harp, fly a helicopter, race motorcycles, hang glide over the mountains of Kauai, Hawaii and swim with man eating sharks. Most people are content to just admire the unpredictable beasts but Lia decided to feed them too. The diving company set her up with pieces of fish which she put on a spear and handed it out to the circling sharks. A few started to get a little pushy so Lia pushed back. "Yep, I punched it in the nose!" she laughs. Not even sharks can scare this woman.  

Fifteen years passed and she was respected and successful beyond her wildest dreams but she still wasn't ready to tell her story. "Every year I would ask myself if I was successful enough. I needed credibility to come forward and share my story on a big scale. It was then I realized I didn't know what success was."

Lia's turning point came on night while at a public meeting near her home in the Beaches. It is an affluent area of Toronto and people were upset a homeless shelter was being opened down the street. Her concerned neighbours didn't know about Lia's past. All they saw was the well dressed woman driving a BMW and living in a beautiful home. Finally Lia stood up and said, "Look at my face. Look at me. I was homeless." The room fell silent and people stared. Then finally the man leading the meeting said, "With all due respect Lia, you're an anomaly." Then he went back to his tirade against the shelter.

That night Lia made up her mind. She had to find other people that had overcome being homeless and on the street. The next day she started a website called "Up with Women" where people could share their stories. The media started requesting interviews and Lia came forward with her story. She started programs, built a children's leadership program, created a community action project and began to re-frame the experience of homelessness. Her ultimate goal is to take her group across North America and one day around the world.

"What's interesting is the experience of homelessness is supporting me. You don't stop feeling fear but you learn you can burn through it. We've all overcome something but even when you're struggling it's important to give back and smooth the path for someone else"

Lia recently quit her well paying job in sales and is now focusing on "Up With Women." She's living off of her savings but that doesn't faze Grimanis. "I've lived frugally before and I'll do it again."

Do you remember the shelter in the Beaches that the well meaning residents tried to stop? It opened and none of the bad things people were worried about happened. Lia drops by often. In fact whenever she walks through the door of any shelter she is an inspiration to everyone in the room. Lia Grimanis can finally say, "I made it."