Recognizing the efforts of frontline community workers during COVID-19

United Way Greater Toronto and the City of Toronto joined forces this week to recognize the efforts of frontline community workers supporting our most vulnerable neighbours amid the COVID-19 crisis. Mayor John Tory proclaimed June 8 to 12 Community Worker Recognition Week in Toronto, highlighting the critical frontline services community workers are providing across the city during the pandemic.

Community workers at United Way agencies have stepped up to meet emergency needs: working tirelessly to deliver food hampers to families, find shelter for those who need it, connect isolated seniors with a friendly voice, and much more. They’re keeping vital programs going, from youth outreach to shelter services to newcomer and family support and beyond.

Each of these community workers are essential, each working harder than ever to help others amidst the pandemic and ensure no one in our community gets left behind. During Community Workers Week, we’re shining the spotlight on some of the many frontline heroes at United Way agencies, including:

Thelma Adelekun and her colleagues from six Rexdale Community Hub agencies have been providing essential services during the pandemic to area children, families and seniors, delivering cooked meals, food baskets and securing cellphones for seniors.

Ghaidaa Arbash, Syrian family support worker at WoodGreen Community Services, has stepped in to help families get their kids connected to online learning, ensure seniors have the supplies they need and serve as a translator between sponsors and newcomers.

Akhil Gopal and his colleagues at Warden Woods Community Centre have had to pivot from client visits to engaging with them virtually during the pandemic. They continue to support local residents facing substance abuse, food insecurity and homelessness.

Hafiz Khan, community outreach co-ordinator at The Neighbourhood Organization, has worked with the Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park communities for nearly a decade. During the pandemic, he has helped organize a team of 30 people to sew more than 3,000 cloth masks for East York’s Michael Garron Hospital.

Lindsay Kretschmer, executive director at Toronto Aboriginal Support Services Council, and her colleagues from the council’s member agencies, have shifted from a policy and advocacy focus to frontline support, purchasing and delivering food and other essentials to ensure Toronto’s Indigenous communities have the resources they need to get through this time.

Sean and Tammy Peddle, the married duo who lead Furniture Bank Toronto’s social enterprise and program operations, are working to ensure local families and residents can still access essential items, co-ordinating safely distanced deliveries while clients can’t come to their warehouse.

Adanna Phillip, social supports manager at CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, usually works to connect youth with meaningful employment—during COVID-19, she’s also reaching out to ensure they have any resources they need, from food delivery to mental-health supports.

Trichelle Primo began attending Boys & Girls Clubs of East Scarborough when she was eight years old—now she’s the agency’s senior manager of children and teens, ensuring families have the resources they need during COVID-19, from engaging online kids’ programming to meal deliveries.

Haydar Shouly, senior manager of shelters and shelter programs at Dixon Hall, is helping to rehouse shelter clients to ensure their well-being during the pandemic.

Jeya Surendran (in green), a veteran settlement worker at North York Community House, is finding new ways to assist vulnerable newcomers during the pandemic—not easy to do at a distance, but she draws on her own experience as a refugee to help them build resilience and access resources.

Silvia Volpentesta, facilities co-ordinator for Family Service Toronto, is ensuring her colleagues can keep working during the pandemic, from overseeing deliveries to managing the logistics of operating a call centre from home. “We can’t let our clients down,” she says.

Sogol Zand, community engagement manager at Afghan Women’s Organization, ensures those in need in AWO’s community have the supplies and resources to get through the COVID-19 crisis, including overseeing food delivery, developing emergency grant applications and mental health outreach.

Toronto has more than 14,000 community-based not-for-profits that employ more than 200,000 people (not including volunteers). As the largest investor in social services next to government, United Way supports a network of 270 of these agencies across Peel, Toronto and York Region. And it’s the frontline community workers at these agencies that helped United Way provide 2.3 million services last year.

“In times like these, community matters,” says United Way Greater Toronto President and CEO Daniele Zanotti. “The need for support, close to home, has never been so vital. Behind every meal delivered, each reassuring voice on the line, all the efforts to ensure someone has a roof over their head at night, is a community worker.”

To mark Community Workers Week, United Way of Greater Toronto and the City of Toronto profiled these inspiring community workers on both organizations’ social media channels throughout the week. Follow United Way Greater Toronto on all our channels @UWGreaterTO.

Donate now to help show your local love and support this vital community work. Every dollar helps sustain a network of agencies close to where you live and work across Peel, Toronto and York Region. Help us ensure that everyone has the support they need to thrive—now, and long after the current crisis has passed.

Access to food during COVID-19

The current crisis magnifies a reality: times like this push our most vulnerable to their limits, and beyond. It’s also impacting their ability to meet their basic needs, like accessing nutritious food. To help unpack the impact of COVID-19 on individuals and families across the GTA, and the underlying systemic issues that contribute to food inaccessibility, United Way Greater Toronto President and CEO Daniele Zanotti engaged experts in a virtual conversation. Panellists Paul Taylor, Executive Director of  FoodShare, Kate Greavette, Executive Director of York Region Food Network, and  Adaoma Patterson, Manager, Poverty Reduction Initiatives & Community Engagement at Region of Peel, discussed how access to food is impacted during the current crisis.

Working with frontline agencies to address food insecurity 

Lack of access to food is a pressing emerging need reported by United Way Greater Toronto’s frontline agencies, and by the groups the organization co-chairs with the City of Toronto and our co-ordinated partnerships in the 905, including Peel and York. It is also the reason behind the majority of calls to United Way-funded 211. “Between April 1 and April 8, 211 referred 2,700 callers to local food banks,” said Daniele Zanotti, President and CEO of United Way Greater Toronto. To address the need, United Way provided flexible funding to our agencies so that they can respond to emerging needs caused by COVID-19, including access to food.  

Providing meals to food insecure individuals and families in York Region 

To address increased food demand in York, York Region Food Network (YRFN) has shifted all of its resources towards food access. The organization takes a systemic approach to addressing food insecurity by raising public awareness around issues that impact people’s access to food, like affordable housing, adequate employment and accessible childcare. YRFN has a variety of interventions, from supporting access to food right now to offering a weekly breakfast every Tuesday. “The requests are coming from people from all backgrounds, from Vaughan to Markham to Georgina,” says Kate  Greavette, Executive Director of YRFN. YRFN is also working on providing food to seniors who are experiencing various illnesses and aren’t able to leave their homes.  

Improving economic opportunities to increase access to food 

Adaoma Patterson—Manager of Poverty Initiatives with United Way co-chaired Peel Poverty Reduction Committee (PPRC)—reported witnessing a sense of urgency as a result of COVID-19. “Our priorities were always around economic opportunities and the types of jobs people have access to,” she said. According to Patterson, what the current crisis has magnified for the Committee is that people in entry-level and precarious jobs are particularly vulnerable. “We’re seeing the safety net in our system being tested significantly. We’re seeing who is falling through the cracks.” Patterson stressed the need to think about what else food insecure individuals might need. “When people need food, it’s often that they need a meal plus other things.”

Addressing barriers to food security 

Paul Taylor, Executive Director of  FoodShare, a United Way-supported agency, also stressed the need to address systemic issues that lead to food insecurity. “The biggest challenge is that we’ve got a recipe for hunger and poverty. We have low minimum wages that lead to poverty and we have high housing costs. All of those factors contribute to 4 million people being food insecure,” he said. To address food insecurity, FoodShare recognizes the need for interventions like affordable child care, affordable housing and income that supports the right to food. “We’ve got people who are food insecure and we really want to help them,” he added. 

You can watch the full webinar below. Look out for invitations to future webinars that will help unpack the impact of your support on the most vulnerable in our community.


Your gift to United Way Greater Toronto’s Local Love Fund will help friends and neighbours access life’s essentials during this challenging time. Donate now.

6 ways you can help your community during COVID-19

Looking for a way to support your community during this challenging time? We’ve rounded up six great ways you can show your local love, while keeping yourself and others safe.  

1. Volunteer  

Many organizations are in need of in-person and remote volunteers to deliver vital services and resources to community members—but they also need people to be patient.  

“At the local agencies, we are in crisis mode right now,” explains Maureen Fair, Executive Director of United Way-supported West Neighbourhood House. “We are inspired by the drive of people to volunteer, but we need to assess this crisis first, and assess our supply and need for personal protective equipment for our staff and volunteers.” 

Two great ways to find out where and how you can be useful right now is through Spark’s list of volunteer opportunities or Volunteer Toronto’s COVID-19 Volunteer Response Team email blasts. Both will help you find a way to get involved ASAP.  

2. Learn  

You may feel overwhelmed by the constant updates about COVID-19, but it’s important to stay informed about the situation in your community—and what is being asked of citizens. Check out United Way’s list of reliable resources to keep on top of local health and regional developments or check out your municipality’s website or social media channels for updates.  

If you want to keep up to date on how community agencies, local governments and United Way are working together to support our vulnerable friends and neighbours, you can check out this informative webinar that outlines United Way’s community response to COVID-19.

3. Connect  

When asked what people could do right now to help, United Way’s President and CEO Daniele Zanotti has a simple answer: “Call your friends and loved ones. Check in with them. Help them where it’s safe and if you can.” 

It’s critical that we keep reaching out to one another as we self-isolate. While you’re staying at home, give an elderly neighbour or family member a call to see how they’re doing. Offer to drop off groceries to people who don’t feel comfortable, or can’t, go to the store. Write a letter to a friend to let them know you’re thinking about them. Or join a caremongering Facebook group where you can offer moral support and assistance to people in your community.  

4. Share 

We could all use some cheering up these days, which is why we recommend sharing moments of laughter, joy and local love on your social media, in a group chat or with your family. It’s a great way to show people that they’re not alone—and that we can still come together while we’re #stayingathome.  

Need some inspiration? Check out the #caremongering hashtag on Twitter and Instagram!  

5. Give to your local food bank  

Food bank use was already on the rise in Toronto—and now, more than ever, people and families experiencing poverty or food insecurity need easy access to groceries. If you picked up one too many items on your last trip to the store, consider dropping your extras off at your local food bank. TorontoPeel and York Region are all calling for donations right now. 

6. Donate to United Way’s Local Love fund 

You can support United Way’s network of community agencies, which is providing on-the-ground support to people and families across the GTA, by donating to the Local Love Fund. Your gift will: 

  • ensure access to basic needs 
  • provide help for seniors 
  • ensure access to mental health supports  
  • keep our community services running 

Show your local love by giving generously today.  

Working collaboratively during COVID-19

COVID-19 is pushing our social safety net to its limits. Now, more than ever, we are being asked to address community needs in new and different ways in a situation that is changing day to day, sometimes even hour to hour. We’re only just beginning to understand the long-term impact this crisis will have on the social infrastructure so many of our most vulnerable rely on. To help unpack the impact of COVID-19, Daniele Zanotti, United Way Greater Toronto’s president and CEO, joined Denise Campbell from City of Toronto, Ruth Crammond from United Way Greater Toronto and Maureen Fair from West Neighbourhood House in a virtual conversation. Here’s what the panellists shared about what they are seeing on the ground and how working collaboratively is ensuring a fast response: 

Thinking differently through flexible funding and collaborations 

These unprecedented times require a different way of thinking. And that includes how we support our agencies. “We were the first ones out of the gate to provide flexible funding to front-line agencies in Peel, Toronto and York, so they can do what they do best—meet emerging needs as they see fit,” said Daniele Zanotti. Collaboration is also key to meeting urgent needs quickly. Examples? Partnering with the City of Toronto to connect United Way’s network of community agencies to the city’s emergency response plan through community clusters, working with York region on COVID-19 community coordination and working with the region of Peel on action tables on food, domestic violence and seniors. The recent announcement of partnering with the federal government on emergency funding for seniors across the country will also ensure our most vulnerable seniors are cared for.  

Acting fast by thinking locally  

Denise Campbell, the executive director, social development, of the City of Toronto, believes it’s important to think local. “Together in our discussions with United Way and the City of Toronto, we’ve certainly recognized that many of the issues that are facing Torontonians right now require a local response, even if it requires a systemic thinking,” she said. Creating clusters within the city’s coordination plan has allowed staff from United Way and the city to better connect to local front-line agencies, flag any issues they’re seeing and build quick solutions by bringing resources to the table. “It’s this on-the-ground local solutioning that is allowing us to move much faster to respond to local needs,” said Denise.  

Prioritizing the well-being of front-line workers and the most vulnerable 

“In times of crisis, we have to think about a phased response,” said Ruth Crammond, vice president of community investment and development at United Way Greater Toronto. That means prioritizing the safety of front-line workers. Working with public health and United Way’s network of agencies, efforts are being made to keep staff who are delivering services safe, especially those who are working with the homeless population. Ruth also cites the unlikely collaborations that are happening as a result of working through community clusters. For example, a food bank in Scarborough that people can’t access has partnered with a Meals on Wheels delivery service that is dropping food hampers to seniors and families who might be isolated.  

Ensuring the safety of staff and their families 

“Our staff are frightened about what COVID could mean to their personal health,” said Maureen Fair, executive director of West Neighbourhood House. “More importantly, they’re worried about transmitting to their household members.” Maureen shares that because front-line workers are as exposed to risk as healthcare workers, their team is working with healthcare workers to try to understand each others’ needs. “Our staff are scared but I think one of the definitions of bravery and courage is that even when you are scared, you continue to do it.”

You can watch the full webinar below. Look out for invitations to future webinars that will help unpack the impact of your support on the most vulnerable in our community.


Your gift to United Way Greater Toronto’s Local Love Fund will help friends and neighbours access life’s essentials during this challenging time. Donate now.

A community response to COVID-19

United Way Greater Toronto President and CEO Daniele Zanotti shares his thoughts on why now, more than ever, it’s important we come together as a community to support our most vulnerable friends and neighbours.

These are challenging and uncertain times. But the research is clear and consistent. Community matters. Especially in times of crisis, the stronger the sense of connection—local people working together—the more resilient the community.
And we are resilient. We are a community that cares about each other. We at United Way see it every year. Call it an uprising of care. People like you showing local love. Donating, volunteering, all so the place where you live and work is great—for all.

COVID-19 is putting our community’s most vulnerable people in an extremely challenging situation. Those who already face significant barriers, including poverty, homelessness and social isolation, need even more of our help during this time. This crisis may last weeks or months. And we need our social infrastructure—that invisible network of agencies people visit, call and rely on every day in your neighbourhood—to be in place now and in the future. 

As the largest investor in social services next to government, we’re working closely with United Way’s front-line agencies to identify the gaps, needs, trends and opportunities that may be emerging locally. 

We’re helping them navigate change, and offering them flexible funding so they can do what they do best: meet urgent needs for people. These front-line United Way community agencies are working in new ways to ensure that those who are most vulnerable in our communities have access to the critical supports they need, close to home. 

Across the GTA, we’re working with the City of Toronto, Peel Region and York Region to continue connecting our network of more than 270 agencies to deliver emergency response plans. These targeted steps will continue the important work United Way and our network of front-line community service agencies deliver every day to support people experiencing poverty in the GTA.  

And beyond the GTA, across the province, local United Ways are working hard to support local needs. Helping that mom and dad, both working part time gigs, keep food on the table. Reaching out to that youth struggling with mental illness. Making sure the personal support worker can visit your frail 92-year-old neighbour. The need for support, close to home, has never been so vital. The need for community so clear. 

And people have been reaching out, asking what they can do.  

  • First take care of yourself and your family. Take a moment to connect with your community. Call your elderly neighbour, video-chat with a friend who lives alone, email someone who may be isolated.  
  • Reach out to your local United Way to find out how our network of services and programs are helping people in your community. Ask if and how you can volunteer. 
  • If you need help yourself, call 211: a phone line that can connect you to the right information and local community services.

Because in times like these, people matter.  All people. And community matters. The caring ties that connect and bind us.  All of us. In a united way.

This article originally appeared on


Your gift to United Way Greater Toronto’s Local Love Fund will help friends and neighbours access life’s essentials during this challenging time. Donate now.