From her humble beginnings in Jamaica as a 6-month-old baby left outside a relative’s house by an ashamed, single, teenage mother, to her own challenges as an unwed mother herself, Norma Nicholson has worked hard to achieve a dream and become a nursing leader.
The 63-year-old has been awarded an Honourable Mention in the Toronto Star’s Nightingale awards.
Despite her struggles, Nicholson feels incredibly blessed. “I do believe that even when I was not a Christian, the Lord looked out for me. Without the Lord or an angel, I would not be where I am today.”
Four previous Nightingale nomination certificates are spread across the dining room table of her Mississauga home. The fifth proved the charm.
“I am so excited,” says Nicholson upon hearing the news. “Not only excited but very humbled — in giving, you don’t expect to receive anything.”
It was Poonam Sharma, a third-year nursing student at Humber College, who nominated her mentor. Sharma works with Nicholson as a student executive with the Peel chapter of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, of which Nicholson is past-president.
In her nomination, Sharma praises Nicholson’s role as “a great nursing leader,” drawing attention to her role as an RN and health manager of the Roy McMurtry Centre, a youth detention facility in Brampton.
The new centre, which opened in June 2009, houses 192 Ontario youths — 160 males and 32 females, ages 12 to 18, who are either awaiting trial or serving time for crimes that require secure custody for up to one year.
“Very few nursing leaders would set out to provide health care for youths who have been at risk, have actually committed serious crimes and are housed in a secure custody,” says Sharma. “These youths are not seen as having made a mistake, but are viewed very negatively by our society.”
But Nicholson doesn’t see it that way.
“As a nurse, I view them as youth who will be our future,” says Nicholson, whose job as health manager includes supervising 17 nurses and interacting with other professionals on contract, including psychiatrists, optometrists, dentists and physiotherapists.
“I enjoy so much working with them,” she says with a big smile. “You learn how poverty, economics and standard of living impact on the lives of youth.”
She should know. As an out-of-wedlock baby, she was sent away by relatives in Kingston, Jamaica, to save them from embarrassment. Nicholson lived with her grandmother and would read to her Nana, who could not read herself.
There, the flame was ignited for a lifelong love of learning.
Norma Nicholson left Jamaica to work in Canada as a nanny, then went to school to become a nurse and is now considered a leader in her profession.
In 1969, Nicholson left her young daughter in the temporary care of her boyfriend’s mother for four years and immigrated to Toronto to work as a nanny to seven children. Her employers, William and Elizabeth Whiteacre, encouraged her to continue her education.
Impressed with nurses she had met, she became a registered practical nurse after almost 10 years of study. She worked at the Hospital for Sick Children and, with the hospital’s financial help, became an RN. Over the years, she earned two degrees. Her career has included nursing at hospitals in Mississauga and Etobicoke. Her most recent job was at the West Park Healthcare Centre in Toronto, where she managed 13 outpatient services.
And she understands the struggles of youth, from her own life and volunteer experience, which includes mentoring at-risk youth in Mississauga (where she has lived for more than 35 years), helping them to build job skills, as well as volunteering Saturdays at a women and children’s shelter.
She encourages young people to remain in school and talks about career opportunities in her role as nurse ambassador with the RNAO. Despite her busy schedule, she presses on with a love for learning and is now studying for a certificate in Health Law from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, an experience she calls “awesome.”
Sharma says Nicholson always shares stories of how her team at the youth centre has made a difference in the young clients’ lives.
“A youth reports that he can now read well because he saw the eye specialist and now owns a pair of glasses; a youth reports that he loves to go to school and enjoys school because he had his ears tested and cleaned and he can now hear what they teacher says,” she reports.
Nicholson says she tries to encourage the youth in custody to better themselves through education.
After all, a young person’s time in custody is “a minuscule part of a youth’s life,” says Nicholson.