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Judy and Brian Harding: Taking Action for Change

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From a concerned citizen to a changemaker taking action for children: Judy Harding, our founder, wholeheartedly believed in children, their voice, and their healing. 40 years later, Child Witness Centre helps over 1,500 children and youth in the community each year.

When Brian Harding, Judy’s husband, was asked about her drive to make a change, he shared her perspective this way, “You have to do something about it. How can you sleep at night if you don’t do something about it? You have to be a responsible Canadian citizen and do something. So Judy did. She had the makings to make a difference, and she did.”

Brian recounts the night their lives became focused on protecting children. It seemed like any other rainy October night that Brian and Judy sat down after dinner to watch the news. This broadcast featured two stories about child sexual assault. One was about a man who sexually assaulted his two-year-old granddaughter. The other, Brian describes, was “A headline about a case in London, Ontario, where a stepfather had sexually abused his five stepdaughters. The perpetrator, the stepfather, got a very minimal sentence. Judy was totally enraged that something like this could happen and only a minimal sentence be handed out. She said, ‘We gotta do something about this, Brian.’”

Judy felt an urgency and she took action. She created a petition protesting the lenient sentences given to the perpetrators and went door to door on that dark and rainy October night collecting signatures, while Brian stayed home with their children. Still reflecting on that night, Brian said, “Judy came home within an hour and needed to write up more copies of the petition.”

Residents were stepping up and rallying together; many of them took copies of the petition to their workplaces to collect more signatures. Judy was overwhelmed with how supportive people were. This topic was close to home for parents, grandparents, educators, and anyone with a heart for children. It was an issue that had been ongoing, and once Judy action, the community was wholeheartedly ready to support her.

“And next thing you know, you look back, there are not two people there, there’s a crowd”, Brian recounts. Within the next few weeks, 40,000 signatures were gathered between Waterloo Region and London, Ontario. From there, they got an appointment with Minister of Justice at the time, Jean Chrétien, at his office on Parliament Hill.

Brian was part of the group that drove to Ottawa. He recalls they had to get creative when binding the petitions: “We were leaving, and somebody said, ‘How are we going to bind all these?’ We had a stack of all these sheets with the names on them. I said, ‘You know what, we will punch holes in them, and you gals can tie them together with Jason’s hockey laces.’ So that’s what they did. Here we are driving down the 401, and they’re sitting in the back feeding hockey laces through all the sheets.”

Following the presentation in Ottawa, Jean Chrétien agreed there were inconsistencies in the legal system regarding the severity of these crimes and the penalties given. It seemed that the court system was tilted in the perpetrators’ favour. Chrétien offered his staff to work with Judy and the group on the matter and urged this issue to be pushed into the public eye to raise awareness.

Judy and Brian knew they couldn’t do this on their own. They wanted to engage community members, so they started to compile a team of volunteers in Waterloo Region to help build the organization. The team was specific about the type of volunteers they were looking for. “We wanted to choose volunteers who were thinking with their brain more than their gut feeling… If we are really going to move the yardsticks, you have to be professional, you have to be focused, and you need to execute on a plan to create change.”

With passionate volunteers and the drive to make a change, the Child Witness Centre (then known as Citizens Concerned with Crime against Children or ‘4Cs’) began its journey to raise funds. During this crucial time, the community continued to step up. The first fundraiser, a dance, was made possible because of local citizens. Of course, there were monetary donations for the event, but what shocked the team the most was the number of nonmonetary items donated. A local church offered the event space, residents donated food, a funeral home donated flowers, local stores donated prizes, and so on.

The organization ran solely on the goodwill of volunteers and community members for over 10 years before they had paid employees. The more traction the team got within the community, the harder they pushed. Brian said, “If you do well, that gives you the motivation to push on to do even more and do better, and that’s basically how it all happened.”

Judy and Brian went on to serve fervently with Child Witness Centre for decades. This included Judy being the executive director, and Brian being a board member for many years, before eventually passing their torches to new members. They were both pleased with how the organization was growing and flourishing. “We have talked about it. We are very proud of how this organization has grown. Starting at our dining room table to what it is today.”

Sadly, Judy passed away this past January and is greatly missed by many. But her determination to advocate for the voices of children and youth will continue to have a positive ripple effect for many decades to come. Taking a moment to collect himself, Brian spoke from his heart, “Rest in peace, dear Judy. Your legacy will live on and benefit thousands of children.”