In a year like no other United Way asks for donations to help Peel’s most vulnerable

·6 min read

The number of Ontarians who need help has skyrocketed over the past 10 months. In parallel, the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged and worsened.

Initially, many hoped the crisis would pass in a few weeks. Supports put in place by charitable agencies and different levels of government were targeted at the short-term, optimists praying it would all be a bad dream by the summer.

As the pandemic reality became clear social services agencies had to overhaul how they reach out to those in need. Even provisions as basic as groceries have changed, with many food banks pivoting to a delivery system.

Standing behind some 280 different agencies delivering vital support in Peel, York and Toronto is United Way. The umbrella organization funds everything from culturally sensitive health services to childcare and food banks. It bankrolls critical support in the GTA that catches many who have fallen through the public safety net.

Since March, the pandemic has put Peel’s most vulnerable through gut-wrenching twists and turns, dashing hopes and replacing bad news with worse. Through it all, United Way has kept a steady hand on the tiller, making sure funds are available for local groups to bring help to those who need it most.

“We are in the final weeks of our stubborn commitment to raise $105 million for community needs right across Peel, Toronto and York Region,” Daniele Zanotti, president and CEO for United Way Greater Toronto, explained to The Pointer. “It’s to maintain our investments in our network of 280 agencies, the same amount as we did last year. As we enter the final weeks … our agencies have been experiencing between 35 and 40 percent spikes in people emailing, texting [or] phoning for help.”

“This additional layer of COVID has only magnified and amplified the need we are seeing across the region,” he added.

Inequities in Peel have been compounded by an unforgiving virus that prays on the less fortunate. The unique structure of United Way and its various partner agencies have allowed charities on the frontline to pivot time and time again.

The Punjabi Community Health Services, one of the agencies that receives funding from United Way, used this flexibility to experiment. Before the pandemic started, it had roughly 150 seniors coming to social gatherings organized to protect against loneliness in old age. March’s shutdown forced them to move online.

Initially, just five of the group’s original members were able to take part digitally. A recruitment drive and extra efforts to reach out resulted in a surge and the service now hosts 170 seniors who take part in Zoom sessions each week. It’s more than ever attended in person.

“That’s what we do: we experiment,” Baldev Mutta, the group’s CEO, told The Pointer. “Would Zoom sessions work? There was no study that we could look at, there was no best practice... We became successful because I think the staff, the community, the funders, the professions, they all worked together to sort out a particular problem. I think that’s what was so good because United Way, as the funders, allowed that flexibility to happen.”

From its position at the heart of a web of different agencies, United Way is able to feel the community pulse. Quantitative data through services like 211 (a community helpline) alongside qualitative information from partner agencies means United Way can form and address a specific picture of need. As a result, its agencies can be more agile responding to emergencies and unforeseen challenges.

“COVID has demonstrated how responsive, innovative and able to function on a dime — and I literally mean a dime — our frontline agencies are,” Zanotti added. “The amount of innovation that is happening is truly unprecedented when you see how they’ve been able to respond to people [who are] not even walking in their doors anymore.”

The Journey, a neighbourhood community project in Brampton, had previously provided most of its services in-person, including after-school or summer camps. The pandemic forced a monumental rethink, leading to a series of summer programs that took place entirely digitally and the provision of laptops to community members who did not have access to the technology needed to thrive.

“We just adjusted everything,” Kevin Birmingham, manager of the project, said. “We used the [online] summer camp experience as a template for launching an after school program in the fall called Learning and Laughing because we realized, by then, it was going to be our reality. So [we are] learning a lot, it has really taken off, I have been really pleasantly surprised.”

With additional space unused inside and capacity to adapt, The Journey began offering support it had never considered before: food distribution. Normally other providers operate in this area, but the organization has pitched in, supplying a pickup location for food parcels to make the service as accessible as possible.

It means more families are discovering the community agency when they come to pick up food.

“The whole food distribution is a massive shift for us,” Birmingham said. “The biggest fundamental change is we’ve had families connecting with us that we didn’t know before because they’ve heard through the neighbourhood that we’re distributing food and that’s something that they need.”

The unique collaboration of different agencies and mastery of data by United Way meant flexibility could be replicated at the regional and neighbourhood level. Research from 211 shows financial assistance, food security and then mental health were the three biggest concerns among those seeking help toward the beginning of the pandemic.

In the early days, United Way, which distributes $7.5 million per month to its 280 agencies, offered extra emergency funding to help adapt to the pandemic. It allowed for charities to concentrate solely on the delivery of service.

The Punjabi Community Health Services was able to increase the number of meals it served to seniors from 18 per day to 40 and then again to 80. It has, in the background, been working on a series of online resources to combat rising rates of domestic violence.

Funding all these programs comes at a cost.

In its flexible approach, United Way has allowed dollars to flow at the height of a brutal pandemic and a time of growing economic instability. As the end of 2020 approaches, the organization is asking for donations from anyone who can afford it.

“[I have seen] random gifts of immense generosity,” Zanotti said. “A restaurateur who, after decades of their business being handed down generation to generation ... had to shut down as a result of COVID. [They] sent us a $200 cheque and said [to] please invest it in our neighbourhood.”

United Way hopes more fortunate residents in Peel will be able to chip in too, funding its vital work in 2021, and beyond.

Go to: https://www.unitedwaygt.org/

Email: isaac.callan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @isaaccallan

Tel: 647 561-4879

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Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer