What does the Throne Speech mean for communities?

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Pedro Barata
Vice President, Communications & Public Affairs
United Way Toronto & York Region

Our guest blogger this week is Pedro Barata, Vice President of Communications & Public Affairs at United Way Toronto & York Region. He has experience working within, and across community-based organizations, strategic philanthropy, and various levels of government.

Earlier this week, the Government of Ontario issued a new Speech from the Throne with a stated focus on balancing the economic and social priorities in communities across the province. This means that it positioned job and economic growth as a top priority for the government but also reinforced the importance of investments in social services, programs and infrastructure—such as child care and community space—that helps people build better lives. The speech also reinforced the anticipated milestone of reaching a balanced budget by 2017.

The Throne Speech contained some welcome news on several issues we are focused on—including early years development, community hubs and building a labour market that works. These announcements are good news—communities are only strong and prosperous when everyone is given the right opportunities to build a good life.

DSC_8185Community Hubs: The first “new” item in the Speech focused on a commitment to expand child care. There is also a reference to the role of community hubs in helping individuals and families access much-needed health, social, educational and recreational supports. This announcement reflects the government’s ongoing commitment to supporting social infrastructure, including the appointment of a special advisor on community hubs to work with community and other groups to ensure these shared public spaces best meet the needs of the people they serve. We’ve had the great fortune of seeing ways our own community hubs have transformed eight priority neighbourhoods, expanding access to services and bringing residents together. It’s why they are a central component of our Building Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy, which focuses on targeted investments, resident-led programs and community infrastructure that supports strong, vibrant neighbourhoods.

united-way-4Workforce Development: This week’s Throne Speech also prioritized a training and skills agenda and reinforced the importance of the provincial youth employment strategy. That focus on skills training—for people of all ages— can bridge employer, worker and community interests—and good jobs and a strong workforce go hand-in-hand. United Way will continue to work with our partners across the province (including the Government of Ontario) on several initiatives that help young people connect with meaningful jobs and long-term economic security. This includes our Career Navigator™ education-to-employment program (part of United Way’s Youth Success Strategy) that helps young people get job-ready by connecting them with a set of customized education, training and support services. We’ll also continue our work/advocacy on groundbreaking new Community Benefits legislation that will help connect residents from priority neighbourhoods with apprenticeship and work opportunities on infrastructure projects such as Metrolinx’s Eglinton Crosstown transit line.

Energy relief:  The Throne Speech also made a commitment to reducing cost pressures on households and businesses across our province in the form of a much-anticipated 8% HST rebate on rising electricity bills. It’s an important step in acknowledging the tremendous financial pressure on households—particularly low-income households—and we look forward to hearing more about how we can ensure that the most vulnerable people and families in our communities get the help they need.

The Throne Speech is a promising blueprint for where this government may go in the months and years ahead.  By prioritizing much-needed social supports and infrastructure— including community hubs, child care and skills training programs for young people—progress can be made for the people and families that United Way works to support every day.

Ask the Expert: How are health and poverty related?

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Kwame McKenzie
CEO, Wellesley Institute
Psychiatrist, CAMH

Kwame McKenzie is the CEO of the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based non-profit research and policy institute that focuses on advancing population health. Also a CAMH psychiatrist, he’s a leading expert on the social causes of mental illness and making our health system more equitable. Imagine a City spoke with Kwame for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn how health and poverty are related.

1. Is there a connection between income and our health?

There’s a strong link between income and health. But, it’s not just about the amount of money you make and what you can buy, it’s what your whole life is like as a result, including where you live, work and the food that you eat. These factors—the social determinants of health—influence the health of individuals and even entire populations, putting vulnerable people at a higher risk of having poor physical and mental health and decreasing their life expectancy.

2. What are some examples of the social determinants of health?

On top of income, other factors that greatly affect our quality of life include gender, disability and race. Health is also determined by our ability to access quality education, nutritious food, adequate housing and social and health services. Another big factor is job security and working conditions.

3. How does poverty influence a person’s physical and mental health?

Living in poverty greatly impacts a person’s physical and mental health. For example, living on a low income means you’re going to be living in less adequate housing where air pollutants or mould could cause asthma. What we eat is a major indicator of our health status as well, and for many people living in poverty, accessing good, nutritious food is financially and physically not feasible. This could lead to very serious conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Precarious work is another major factor that brings with it a host of health concerns. Workers without job security often lack holidays, benefits or sick days and spend long hours commuting to work. This causes high levels of stress and anxiety as a result.

Unfortunately, all of these factors produce a vicious cycle, which both psychologically and physically makes a person more vulnerable to illness, even down to something like the flu. Once you’ve got one illness, you’re more likely to get another.

4. What are some of the best ways to address these issues to improve the well-being of Canadians?

Studies show that the healthiest people are in economies where they’ve decreased poverty, the gap between rich and poor and started really investing in people. That means ensuring access to good jobs, increasing food security and giving kids the best start in life. This last piece is especially important. Studies show a child’s resilience to both physical and mental problems is linked to the amount of face-to-face time with their parents. You can imagine how poverty has a generational impact. It produces a trajectory, which means increased risk of illness through childhood into adult life. That’s why the early years are so important. We have to make sure that children get proper nutrition and have access to child development programs and high-quality daycare to ensure kids get a good start in life.

United Way has a big hand in addressing these issues. They glue society together and make sure that people living in poverty or who are marginalized don’t fall between the cracks. It’s not glamorous, but it’s the biggest improvement we’re going to get in-house. Without United Way, all of the problems that we have with the social determinants of health and poverty would be magnified significantly.

5. Why is this an issue that affects all of us?

Healthy people can mean healthy communities, but healthy communities also breed healthy people. It’s a two-way street. Income inequality is important, because without a healthy economy and a healthy society, then people will not thrive. Ultimately, we need to focus on creating a society that’s inclusive and supportive of everyone in our community.

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5 tips for teens on getting volunteer-ready

Back-to-school is just around the corner! Which means there’s no better time for Ontario high school students (particularly those just starting Grade 9) to start thinking about how they’ll give back to their communities. That’s why we’re bringing back this popular “cheat sheet” that we created during National Volunteer Week for high school students who are required to complete 40 hours of community service before they graduate. If you’re a parent, we hope you’ll share our tips list with your teen for everything they need to know on getting “volunteer-ready.”

Camara Chambers Director, Community Engagement Volunteer Toronto

Camara Chambers
Director, Community Engagement
Volunteer Toronto

Start early: It’s never too early to start thinking about your volunteer service. In Ontario, students can start clocking their community service hours starting right after they finish Grade 8 and all the way up until, and including, Grade 12. It often takes several weeks to secure a volunteer position, so it’s best not to leave it to the last minute, especially if you’re close to graduation.  “If you have to squeeze all of those 40 hours into two weeks, you’re going to be setting yourself up for failure,” says Camara Chambers, Director of Community Engagement at Volunteer Toronto. “A great time to start volunteering is during the spring when the annual ChangeTheWorld: Youth Volunteering Challenge takes place.” Since you can’t volunteer during school hours, many students choose to complete their hours during the summer or even March Break. Volunteering at a number of events is another popular option since it gives young people the chance to split their volunteer hours into smaller chunks of time. “It’s also a great opportunity to try different roles, meet lots of different people and get a behind the scenes look at lots of different events throughout the city,” adds Chambers.

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1. Do your homework: It’s important to find an opportunity that’s a good match for your personality, skills and future career aspirations. Chambers advises all volunteers to narrow their search using the “3 Rs”— reflect, research and reach out. What do you really want to get out of the experience? Maybe you’re focused on getting some valuable experience for your resume. Or perhaps you want to put a particular skill to good use. Are you interested in working with a particular group of people or on a specific issue such as poverty? Or maybe you just need to find a position that fits into your busy schedule and is close to home or school. Knowing what you want will help you narrow your search once you’re ready. It’s also a good idea to talk to your school guidance counsellor to get pre-approval on your position. “Some schools are more flexible than others and will allow you to volunteer just helping your neighbour,” says Chambers. “Others will want you to do it specifically for a non-profit or a charity.” It’s also important to know your rights. You should expect to have the role clearly explained to you and receive some form of training, even if it’s informal. Having a supervisor or adult mentor is another must. Remember that you can’t be paid for your volunteer service but some organizations provide tokens or small honorariums.

Spencer-Xiong-20130507-1UWL0259-fb2. Find a role that fits: You’re ready to start your search. The best place to look? Online volunteer databases such as volunteertoronto.ca or yorkinfo.ca that list hundreds of opportunities organized by age and category. If you can’t find what you’re looking for here, you can also contact individual organizations to learn more about any positions that might be available. Talk to your parents and peers for suggestions, or contact your local place of worship or a charity in your neighbourhood.  Don’t forget to factor your personality into the equation. If you’re not comfortable in big groups, choose a role such as one-on-one tutoring. You can even volunteer with your friends at certain fundraising events. Family volunteering opportunities are also available and include delivering meals to seniors. Once you’ve secured your spot, it’s not unusual to complete a brief in-person or phone interview to learn more about the position. Some roles may even require that you attend an information session or day of training.

DSC_79593. Put your best foot forward: Although you can’t be paid for your volunteer service, treat this opportunity as a valuable learning experience for the future. “It’s really important to leave a good impression. That means turning up on time, asking lots of questions when you don’t understand your responsibilities and communicating honestly, especially if you’re not finding the job enjoyable,“ says Chambers. “The person overseeing you will likely be your reference in the future.” She adds: “If you make a really good impression, your volunteer supervisor will probably introduce you to other people, give you other opportunities or give you more of a leadership role.” And finally, don’t forget to say “thank you” once you’ve completed your position.

CamaraChambers4. Become a better citizen (and have fun doing it!): Completing your mandatory 40 hours of volunteer service is about much more than just clocking time. If you want to get the most out of your experience, be prepared to learn. Engage with your peers and supervisor to learn more about the issues facing the organization—and the sector—where you’ve selected your position. When you’re done, stay in touch with any friends or contacts you’ve made along the way. “Volunteering is a fantastic way to try new experiences, meet new people and make new friends,” says Chambers. Maybe you’ll even find something you want to stick with over the long-term.”

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What if you could turn a parking lot into a community garden?

What if you could turn an unused parking lot into a community garden?

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Pretty cool, right? That’s the idea behind a recent bylaw called Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zoning that will give high-rise tower communities in priority neighbourhoods greater control over local development.

Why does it matter? Because in addition to creating opportunities to bring in new jobs, shops and services,  RAC zoning can also help to transform tower neighbourhoods into vibrant, livable and walkable communities.

United Way was proud to play a key role in bringing this new legislation to fruition by working with partners, including the City of Toronto and ERA Architects.

Watch this video to hear more from our very own Pedro Barata, VP, Communications and Public Affairs, on what’s next for this exciting initiative.

ICYMI: 3 must-read blog posts

We wanted to send a special shout-out to you, all of our loyal blog readers, for continuing to visit Imagine a City to learn more about the social issues that matter most. We know you’re busy…so we’ve put together a list of some of our most popular blog posts over the last year. Happy reading!

What is hidden homelessness?

When most of us think of homelessness, we picture people living on urban streets or spending their days and nights in temporary shelters. In Toronto, for example, some 5,000 people find themselves without a place to live on any given night. But homelessness isn’t just a “big city” issue. In York Region, poverty is often hidden. This means some individuals “couch surf” with friends or neighbours, while others—many who are newcomers—are forced to double or even triple up with relatives just to make ends meet. Check out this post to learn more about this important issue from homelessness expert Dr. Steven Gaetz.

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5 Women who inspire us

For International Women’s Day 2016, we put together a list of inspirational women who are changing lives and making our communities better places to live. From a Canadian senator who’s championing the rights of newcomers to a 13-year-old philanthropist and Richmond Hill resident who is creating big change in the world of charitable giving and social justice, we dare you not to be inspired!

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What if you had to choose? 

Imagine having to choose between eating or keeping a roof over your head? Or what would you do if staying home to care for your sick child could cost you your job? In this eye-opening blog post, we introduced readers to some of the daily, harsh realities faced by 1 in 4 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region who live in poverty. Missed the post? Test out our digital poverty simulator, Make the Month, here.

5 community events you can’t miss

Toronto Islands, C.N. Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium, Canada’s Wonderland. With the season halfway over, chances are you’ve already visited one of these summer hot spots. So we put together our own list of community events happening right across our region. Get outside, have some fun and get to know a new neighbourhood.

1. HOPE Community Garden BBQ – August 11, 2016

Community Garden BBQLooking for an event that brings together residents, young and old? The 5th Annual HOPE Community Garden BBQ takes place August 11 in Vaughan. It’s organized to celebrate the seniors who help grow and nurture the community garden, many of whom participate in this project through wellness programs funded by United Way. It’s a great opportunity for elderly residents, who are more likely to experience isolation, to participate in a community-building event. Come for the BBQ…and stay for an action-packed day full of intergenerational fun!

2. Dragon Boat Race for United Way – August 13, 2016

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Taking place in beautiful King City, the Dragon Boat Race for United Way is more than just a fundraiser; it’s a community-building opportunity with something for everyone. Watch the paddlers race to support their region while enjoying music, yummy BBQ, and plenty of activities for kids. With 100% of the fundraising from this event going directly to changing lives across our region, it’s sure to be an incredible day!

 

 

 

3. Good Food Market at CICS – August 12 and 26, 2016

Good Food market option 1Show your support for a local community garden in Agincourt by visiting the Good Food Market at the Centre for Immigrant and Community Services, a United Way-supported agency. It’s a great way to get affordable, seasonal, and organic veggies and to see firsthand the vital role innovative urban gardening programs play in helping get healthy, nutritious food to the nearly one in 10 households in Toronto that experience some level of food insecurity.

4. Moonlight movies in the park – August 12-13, 2016

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Want to enjoy a fun flick with your family in some of Toronto’s many beautiful parks? Park People, a non-profit organization, has teamed up with parks and recreation centres across Toronto—including United Way agencies—to bring movies to the masses this summer. Malvern Family Resource Centre is co-hosting The Lego Movie at Little Road Park on August 12 and Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office is co-hosting Madagascar at RV Burgess Park on August 13. Bring your own snacks, camping chairs and blankets and grab a spot for some blockbusters that also bring communities together.

5. Scarborough Community Multicultural Festival – August 5-7, 2016

Multicultural eventCome out to this 3-day festival to celebrate the cuisine, music, and art of the many diverse cultural communities that make up Scarborough. This year, the festival will also host a Canadian citizenship ceremony to welcome some of the nearly 75,000 newcomers who arrive in Toronto and York Region each year. So get out to Scarborough Civic Centre this summer to celebrate your own cultural background or learn something new about your neighbour.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us how you’re getting to know your community this summer!

3 things you should know about income inequality

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_Good-to-knowWhen most of us think of income inequality, we think about gaps between those who are doing well financially and those who are not. But you may be surprised to learn that income inequality is about much more than just a pay cheque.

Here are 3 more things you might not know about income inequality:  

1. It undermines fairness: With the rise of income inequality, it’s not simply your effort that determines whether or not you’re going to do well. Increasingly it’s circumstances beyond your control including your background, where you were born, how much money your parents make or your postal code,” says Pedro Barata, United Way’s VP of Communications & Public Affairs. This creates deep divides between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” undermining fairness and creating an environment where hard work is no longer seen as a guarantee for success. Watch this video to learn more about the importance of ensuring individuals and families across our region have equal opportunities to build better lives and stronger futures.

2. It makes entire communities feel “invisible:” “People living in poverty will often talk about lack of access to material items such as money for transit or food. But they may also mention their inability to do things like buy a birthday present for a friend, go to the movies or catch up over a cup of coffee. Sometimes they can’t afford to leave their house,” says Barata. “All of this adds up to social isolation and feeling excluded. People living in poverty will often say they’re invisible.” There is also a tendency towards thinking that the voices of people living on a low income aren’t important. “Who gets to talk to politicians? Who gets quoted in newspapers? Who gets to go to meetings? For a variety of reasons, it’s typically not people living on a low income,” adds Barata. “Often they’re too busy holding down a number of jobs and they live in communities that are too often left out of decision making processes. The consequence? Entire neighbourhoods become divided along income and social lines and we don’t live up to the promise of being a region “where everyone can come from all walks of life and live in harmony.”

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3. It deflates our hope for the future: Rapidly growing income inequality is worrisome to all of us. In a recent report conducted by United Way, 86% of survey respondents indicated that they felt the gap between those with high and low incomes is too large. A joint Toronto Region Board of Trade and United Way report also points to a decidedly gloomy outlook as only the smallest number of citizens believe the next generation will experience the progress achieved by previous generations. In fact, for the first time in a century, young people are expected to be materially less well off in adulthood than their parents. For youth facing additional barriers—including poverty, lower levels of education and discrimination—the challenges are even greater. 

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To learn more about how we’re working together with our partners to bring hope, fairness and opportunity to individuals and families across our region, read this guest post from Michelynn Laflèche, United Way’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation.

The bottom line on social procurement

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Denise Andrea Campbell
Director, Social Policy, Analysis and Research
City of Toronto

As the City of Toronto’s Director of Social Policy, Analysis and Research, Denise Andrea Campbell  has worked tirelessly to champion poverty reduction and youth success strategies in priority neighbourhoods. She has advised on strategy for leading foundations including The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and has also worked internationally on race and gender policies in numerous United Nations forums. In her guest blog post, Denise discusses how the City’s new social procurement program is helping create pathways to prosperity.

In 2006, community leaders in Flemingdon Park asked me why the City couldn’t hire young people through its procurement process.

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Community leaders knew that youth employment was key to neighbourhood development in Toronto. They knew that the City, together with United Way was committed to taking action on neighbourhood improvement with the recent launch of the first Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy. And they saw City construction projects—part of the City’s annual budget of $1.8 billion for goods and services—as a perfect opportunity to train and hire under-employed young people.

They believed the City could make it happen.

We did. It took us 10 years.

Procurement in a large institution like the City is often inflexible, governed by policies, laws, and decades-long industry practices that create seemingly insurmountable barriers to targeted spending.

But we also knew, as the community knew, that social procurement could be a game-changer.

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Social procurement has the power to create pathways to prosperity. Research indicates that Aboriginal and minority-owned businesses create jobs in their communities. The social enterprise business model  is all about creating social and economic benefits for marginalized groups. So if even 5% of our annual procurement were leveraged to create economic opportunities for those in poverty, that could be a $75 million investment towards inclusive economic development.

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Hawthorne Food & Drink, a social enterprise supported by the Toronto Enterprise Fund—a partnership between United Way and all three levels of government—employs individuals facing barriers including poverty and homelessness.

So we continued to push.

Working closely with partners, we began pilot initiatives to train and hire youth in a Weston-Mount Dennis youth space renovation in 2008, thanks to United Way funding. The City also worked with Toronto Community Housing and the Daniels Corporation to embed workforce development into the supply chain of the Regent Park Revitalization. And given my division’s focus on social development, we made sure to set an example, procuring from social enterprises whenever possible. A big win came in 2013 when City Council adopted a Framework for Social Procurement to move us from one-off successes to institutional practice.

Researching other jurisdictions, piloting approaches in City contracts, and building partnerships allowed us to have the evidence, the workable model, and a solid policy for Council to consider.

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United Way–supported social enterprises like Interpreter Services Toronto, which trains and employs newcomer and refugee women—are now in a better position to compete for, and benefit from, City contracts as diverse suppliers through the Toronto Social Procurement Program.

Three years and nine pilot projects later, on May 3, 2016, Toronto City Council unanimously adopted the Toronto Social Procurement Program. The program drives inclusive economic growth in Toronto by encouraging buyers and vendors to do business with certified diverse suppliers, including those owned by people from equity-seeking communities and social enterprises in all City procurement. A particular focus will be on contracts below $50,000 for which smaller businesses like social enterprises are better able to compete.

This 10-year journey has been long, and isn’t over yet. We’re taking steps to build a broader social procurement ecosystem. We want to create a climate that allows businesses owned by equity-seeking communities—women, racialized and Aboriginal peoples and newcomers—and social enterprises to compete for City contracts on their own or as part of a partnership. With the support of the Atkinson Foundation and with the participation of the United Way, we are also leading the AnchorTO Network to spread social procurement practices across all of Toronto’s public sector institutions.

So the next time community leaders ask us to create economic opportunities for their residents, we know we have built the foundation to now answer ‘yes.’

Who would you nominate?

We get to meet—and work with—some pretty amazing people here at United Way. So back in January we decided to launch our very own ‘Change Maker’ series to introduce you to some of the brightest, most passionate and hard-working people who are igniting change in the social services sector. Here’s a wrap up of these incredible individuals.

Zahra_photoZahra Ebrahim: She’s been called a “civic rockstar” by her fans on social media. She was featured as one of “Tomorrow’s Titans” in Toronto Life’s Most Influential issue. And she recently shared her city building passion as a featured speaker at TEDxToronto.  But it’s the urbanist’s trailblazing work connecting 75 youth from a Toronto priority neighbourhood with an opportunity to completely transform their local community hub that earned her a spot on our list.

YasinYasin Osman: He’s a 23-year-old Regent Park resident and photography phenom who captures the heart and soul of his beloved neighbourhood with the click of a shutter. His stunning images—which he posts to his thousands of followers on Instagram, are raw and real—Yasin’s way of showcasing all that makes him proud of the place he grew up. When he’s not busy working as an early childhood educator (ECE), he’s inspiring local kids and youth through #ShootForPeace, a pioneering photography program he created to inspire young people to explore art outside their neighbourhood.

MebDr. Meb Rashid: He’s the medical director of Toronto’s only in-hospital refugee clinic who has dedicated his career to serving “the world’s heroes.” With his lean, but mighty team, Meb is changing the way care is delivered in the city—and ensuring a refugee’s new life in Canada begins with a healthy start.

MichaelBraithewaiteMichael Braithwaite: He’s a passionate champion who’s made it his life’s work to ensure young people facing barriers have every opportunity for a promising future. As the Executive Director of 360°kids, he’s not only providing a safe haven for at-risk youth, he’s pursuing innovative, out-of-the-box ideas to tackle homelessness in York Region.

Kofi Hope2Kofi Hope: He’s a leading youth advocate and prestigious Rhodes scholar who has dedicated his life’s work to amplifying the voices of Black youth who face barriers such as poverty and racialization. He’s also made it his mission to empower these young people to take charge of their futures by focusing on innovative solutions that connect youth to each other—and their communities.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us who inspires you and nominate your very own Change Maker. He or she could be featured on our blog!

Would you pass the test?

FlagJuly 1 is Canada Day!  A national statutory holiday to mark the date in 1867 that Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada were united into a single country.

Across the country, several formal citizenship ceremonies are held each year to officially welcome some of the approximately 250,000 newcomers who arrive in Canada annually.

“Canada is celebrated around the world for its freedom, democracy, inclusion and diversity,” Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum says in this press release. “This Canada Day, I encourage you to come to one of our Citizenship Ceremonies to celebrate being and becoming Canadian—and to welcome the newest members of our family. More than one in five Canadians were born outside Canada. This is our strength and a source of great pride. Please join us in celebrating it.”

United Way would also like to send a warm welcome to Toronto and York Region’s newest citizens! And we’d like to give a special shout-out to our network of community agencies that are working in neighbourhoods across our region to support newcomers and refugees as they build a new life in Canada.

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The Khalils are looking forward to starting their new life in Canada.

Before we go, we thought we’d have a little fun. We’re curious to see if you know what’s on the formal Citizenship Test. Imagine a City invites you to put your own knowledge—including the rights and responsibilities of being a Canadian citizen— to the test.

Food for thought on food security

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What does it mean to be food “insecure”?

  1. Running out of food before there is money to buy more
  2. Not being able to afford a healthy, balanced diet
  3. Missing meals
  4. Not eating for the whole day

According to the World Food Summit, the answer is: all of the above.  Here are three more things you might now know about food insecurity.

  1. Food insecurity affects 1 in 8 Toronto households: The latest Household Food Insecurity in Canada report says 12.6%, or one in eight, households in the Toronto census metropolitan area experienced food insecurity in 2014. Food insecurity isn’t just about hunger either. It’s a serious public health issue that affects individuals’ health and well-being, impacts their ability to do well in school, contribute successfully to their workplace and be active members of their communitieDSC_9131
  1. 1 in 6 Canadian children experience food insecurity: The report also finds that a shocking one million children in Canada under the age of 18 live in food insecure households. Research tells us that missing breakfast is associated with decreased academic, cognitive, health and mental-health performance among children. In a survey, nearly 68% of teachers believe there are students in their classrooms who come to school hungry.  That’s why United Way helps children and their families access healthy food through meal and school snack programs. We also support programs that encourage healthy eating—including nutrition classes that teach low-income families how to make healthy baby food.

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  1. Cost isn’t the only barrier to healthy, nutritious food: The average food bank client has only $5.83/person/day left over after spending the majority of their income on fixed expenses such as rent and utilities. Cost is a major barrier to accessing food, but it isn’t the only one. What many people don’t know is that there is a lack of healthy food outlets—places that sell nutritious, fresh and culturally-appropriate food—in Toronto’s inner suburbs and low-income neighbourhoods. That’s why innovative solutions such as urban agriculture and healthy food corner stores play an important role in improving nutritious food access and bringing community members together through the growing of food and the cooking and sharing of meals.

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Want to help bring nutritious, culturally-appropriate food to people who need it most? Donate to, and volunteer with, our Malvern Urban Farm project—and see how your gift can grow a community, too.

Golden years? A growing demographic with growing challenges

June is Seniors’ Month in Ontario. Across the country, individuals aged 65 and over represent one of the fastest growing segments of our population. But with growth, comes challenges for many individuals in their so-called “golden years.”

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A  Statistics Canada survey revealed nearly 20% of seniors aged 65 or over felt left out, isolated from others, or that they lacked companionship.

Social isolation isn’t just about loneliness. It also touches many other areas of seniors’ lives, including active participation, healthy aging, care giving and transportation, according to research conducted by the Government of Canada’s National Seniors Council. Elderly individuals who are isolated are also more likely to experience depression and are more vulnerable to elder abuse.

The societal, economic and health consequences of seniors’ isolation are simply too large to ignore. By 2017—for the first time ever—there will be more Ontarians over 65-years-old than those under 15. The number of seniors in our province is also expected to more than double by 2036.

Tackling this important issue starts at home—and in the community. Last year, United Way Toronto & York Region invested more than $4.7 million in support for seniors in Toronto ranging from home visits and meals-on-wheels to community dining and fitness classes.

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It’s supports and services like these that we know play an important role in increasing the health and wellbeing of this vulnerable population. One example? Programming through Community & Home Assistance to Seniors (CHATS), a United Way agency that provides culturally-specific activities for seniors including exercise, dancing, games and much-needed socialization.

“I used to sit at home alone,” says Mohammad Hassan, 99, who accessed CHATS services after experiencing depression following his wife’s passing. “Now, I look forward to attending the program each week. It’s because of the friendships I’ve made here that I’m still alive.”

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Mohammad Hassan (front centre) with some of the friends he’s made at a cultural program for seniors.

Another way to stave off social isolation among seniors?  Engage them as active volunteers in their communities.  According to Volunteer Canada, seniors who volunteer have reduced stress-related illnesses, higher self-esteem and are less likely to feel isolated.

evelynFor 98-year-old Evelyn, the opportunity to volunteer alongside her peers at the Bernard Betel Centre helped her cope with the death of her husband while allowing her to give back to her community at the same time. The centre, which offers everything from wellness clinics to computer classes for seniors, relies on the support of more than 400 volunteers—both young and old—to operate.

When concerned individuals of all ages come together to address the issue of seniors’ isolation, we also build stronger communities as a result. That’s why it’s up to all of us to ensure the “golden years” really do live up to their promise for our region’s elderly individuals.

Snapshot: Say cheese! 3 of our fave Rat Race pics

The 16th annual Scotiabank Rat Race for United Way is just around the corner. We dug into our photo archives and picked three of our favourite images from this 5K fun run.

2002RatRacephoto 1. This oldie but goodie is from 2002, the year after United Way’s inaugural Rat Race in 2001. Back in the day, the event was attended primarily by members of Bay Street’s finance community as a way to burn off some post-tax season stress. In this shot, runners dressed in their Bay Street best scurry through the streets of downtown Toronto toting cardboard briefcases. Today, the race features nearly 2,000 runners/walkers from more than 166 workplaces across the GTA.

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2. How’s this for a cheesy idea? We love this 2006 Rat Race promo poster featuring a runner on a life-sized hamster wheel getting ready for the big event. Ready, set, scurry!

PaperRat3. Origami rats, anyone? In 2007, we created these raaatterrific cut-outs as a promotion for the race. Cubicles across the city were ‘infested’ with these life-like rodents generating lots of buzz about the event.

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4. Bonus shot! We love our volunteers…and Aggie is no exception. She’s been volunteering for the Scotiabank Rat Race for United Way for many years. In fact, she’s one of approximately 350 awesome volunteers who sign up every year to help out at the event, stepping in as cheerleaders, race ambassadors and time chip distributors.

It’s not too late to sign up for this year’s event! Scurry on over to our registration page and show your community how much you care!

Changemakers to watch: Kofi Hope

Kofi Hope2Meet Kofi Hope. He’s a leading youth advocate and prestigious Rhodes scholar who has dedicated his life’s work to amplifying the voices of Black youth who face barriers such as poverty and racialization. He’s also made it his mission to empower these young people to take charge of their futures by focusing on innovative solutions that connect youth to each other—and their communities.

WHO: As the Executive Director of the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, a United Way Youth Challenge Fund legacy initiative, Kofi has played a pivotal role in connecting youth with the holistic supports they need for a promising future. This includes creating pathways to meaningful jobs, part of United Way’s bold new Youth Success Strategy that puts the long-term economic security of some of our region’s most vulnerable young people front-and-centre. “It’s not enough to just move a young person from unemployed to employed,” explains Kofi. “You have to build up the person by focusing on the unique aspects of their life.” And he’s doing exactly that—recognizing that stable employment is crucial to economic security—and a springboard to a promising future. “When you empower a person to take control of their life, they realize the barriers they’re facing will not be there forever,” he says. “They’re just problems to be solved and overcome.”

In fact, helping young people overcome barriers has been a life-long affair. He’s been a child and youth champion since he was a teen, organizing programming to address the growing needs of kids in his community. By university, he was advocating on behalf of Black youth as the founder of the Black Youth Coalition Against Violence. And by 28, he had a PhD from the highly-esteemed University of Oxford.

WHY: Kofi’s ability to bring together and mobilize community members, business leaders and decision-makers in a common cause of action is inspiring. In addition to his groundbreaking work with CEE, he’s also led meaningful change beyond our borders. He’s a passionate public speaker who has captivated audiences overseas, and has even advised on a land claim struggle in South Africa, effectively bridging the gap between community and authority as a cross-cultural communicator and negotiator.

WHAT’S NEXT: Kofi has big plans for the year ahead. Recently, he joined the board of the Toronto Environmental Alliance where he’s tackling important social issues that intersect with environmental concerns. “Environmental and social justice are not competing causes,” explains Kofi. “Good public transit helps reduce our carbon footprint, but also opens up economic and social opportunities to marginalized people in underserved areas. You’re saving the environment and building a more equitable society for everyone.”

GOOD ADVICE: 

3 moms who inspire us

With Mother’s Day just days away, we wanted to celebrate three amazing moms we met over the past year. With hard work and a whole lot of love, these dedicated women are working to create opportunities for their children to ensure they have every chance at a bright future.

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From left: Najwa Issa Khalil and her children, Aya, Alaa and Ibrahim.

1. Najwa Issa Khalil: Najwa is a true testament to courage and resilience. Following the devastating humanitarian crisis in Syria, she and her family were forced to leave their hometown of Aleppo. For the sake of their children, they fled to Canada—leaving behind everything to start a new life in an entirely new country. Najwa inspires us because she demonstrates the sacrifices mothers make to ensure the safety and well-being of their family. Today, with the help of a United Way agency, the family is integrating into their new community and are ready for what is sure to be a bright future. “I’m happy,” says Najwa. “We feel welcome and very safe in Canada.”

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2. Sushi Rosborough: For years, Sushi struggled with poverty and addiction. But, despite a life of uncertainty, this mother’s love for her son remained steady. In order to ensure he had every opportunity to thrive, Sushi knew she needed to break the cycle that had controlled her life for so long. After getting support at Street Health, a United Way agency, Sushi eventually enrolled in a peer outreach program. Today, she works as a peer support worker at the centre. ”My son is 26 now and he’s doing awesome,” says the proud mom. “He’s a security guard and really enjoys what he does.” The epitome of strength and perseverance—and proof that the love for your child can be the hope you need to turn your life around.

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Justine Chen See and her mom, Gladys.

3. Gladys Chen See: Gladys wanted a promising future for her daughter. But, Justine was born with an intellectual disability, and following high school, had no next steps to transition from adolescence to adulthood. So, Gladys decided to do something about it. With a little help from a United Way agency, Gladys, along with other parents of special-needs youth, turned a once-vacant tuck shop into a place where their kids could learn valuable life skills. It’s an opportunity that has changed both of their lives. “I’m hopeful she’ll have a future,” says Gladys. A mother who’s helping her daughter create a pathway to a future she never thought possible. And, confidence in her daughter’s ability that is nothing short of admirable.

Home-Image-1000x400Think your mom is awesome, too? Show her how much you care by making a gift in her honour. You’ll help moms in our community give their children opportunities to thrive. Plus, you’ll receive a Bloomex gift card to spend on flowers for Mother’s Day or beyond.

Changemakers to watch: Michael Braithwaite

Meet Michael Braithwaite. He’s a passionate champion who’s made it his life’s work to ensure young people facing barriers have every opportunity for a promising future. As the Executive Director of 360°kids, he’s not only providing a safe haven for at-risk youth, he’s pursuing innovative, out-of-the-box ideas to tackle homelessness in York Region.

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Michael Braithwaite
Executive Director, 360°kids

WHO: Michael has a long history is the social services sector. Before taking the lead at 360°kids, a United Way–supported agency, he spent over two decades with the YMCA—spearheading everything from day camps in Niagara Region to a men’s shelter in downtown Hamilton and employment programming in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood. But as a father of three, Michael is especially drawn to the youth demographic. “My kids look no different than the young people that I work with everyday,” he says. “I like working with youth because they have so much to offer. If they matter to just one person, that can be the hope they need to turn their life around.”

WHY: In March, 360°kids was named “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards. And with good reason. Thanks to a partnership with the Regional

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Municipality of York, 360°kids is operating out of a new 20,000-square-foot facility in Richmond Hill, increasing its youth drop-in capacity. Prior to the expansion, there were only 27 shelter beds dedicated to youth throughout the rapidly-growing region. “Housing is a major issue in York Region, especially for young people who are experiencing issues at home,” explains Michael. “These crucial spaces allow youth to live semi-independently while accessing the supports they need to get back on their feet.”

Michael celebrates 360°kids' award for "Best Non-Profit" at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

Michael celebrates 360°kids’ award for “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

It’s an issue Michael knows well—because it hits close to home. For years, his sister struggled with addiction and mental health issues, and, at just 16, found herself in and out of precarious housing. “It can happen to anyone and any family,” says Michael. “This cause drives me because if my sister had access to an organization like 360°kids growing up, she might have broken that pattern a long time ago.”

But Michael’s impact is more than just bricks-and-mortar improvements. His team has also been the brains behind 360° Experience, which invites business and community leaders to experience a day in the life of homeless youth—braving the cold, hunger and isolation. “I wanted to do something that really has an impact,” he says. “You might only endure these struggles for one day, but it’s an experience that will last a lifetime.”

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

WHAT’S NEXT: Drawing on innovative ideas from across the globe, Michael is now piloting a preventative program—in partnership with Raising the Roof—that will see outreach workers visiting schools to identify early signs of struggle that could lead to homelessness. He’s also working to create the first LGBTQ youth shelter in York Region, and plans to have 360°kids become the first Night Stop-accredited agency in Canada—a UK-based program that matches individuals and families who have space in their home to young people in need. “It would only cost $4,000 a year to place a child in an actual home—whether it’s a couple whose grown children have moved out or a senior who feels isolated and could use some extra help around the house,” he explains. “It would be beneficial to both parties, and the best part: a child would have a real place to call home.”

GOOD ADVICE:

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Join us in ensuring young people have access to the opportunities they need to thrive. Subscribe to Community Matters and see all the good work people like you make possible.

UPDATE: What is the precarity penalty?

Our guest blogger this week is Michelynn Laflèche, United Way Toronto & York Region’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation. Prior to joining United Way, she worked as a consultant with Civic Action and was Chief Executive of the Runnymede Trust, a leading social policy and research charity in the UK.

Michelynn Lafleche

Michelynn Laflèche
Director, Research, Public Policy and Evaluation
United Way Toronto & York Region

Job precarity is having a negative impact on the wellbeing of our residents—it’s something we’ve been talking about in our research for some time now.

What we’ve discovered in our newly released report, The Precarity Penalty: Executive Summary York Region is that this issue is widespread across York Region.  In fact, more than 40% of workers are in jobs with some degree of insecurity.

York Region—a place many consider affluent—is not immune to the problems facing Toronto’s downtown.

Our data tells us that people’s anxiety about work is interfering with their personal and family lives. More than half of the people surveyed earning low or middle incomes are experiencing this type of anxiety. The uncertainty of not knowing if and when you’ll work can be socially isolating.

Precarity-Penalty-YR-Bucket 3Not having access to childcare is another huge challenge for York Region residents—63.6% say it interferes with their work-life. How do you schedule your child’s daycare if your work schedule changes weekly or daily?

These challenges are real and significant, but they don’t paint the entire picture.  We also learned that in some instances, York Region residents actually fare better. Based on the sample size, we can’t draw definitive conclusions, but can make some interesting comparisons. We found that York Region residents who are precariously employed earn 10% higher individual incomes and 7% have higher household income.

All of this data is another important step in guiding and informing our work.  It underscores the need to address the growing issues that surround precarious employment and our commitment to do more.

And we are prepared to do more around this work with the help of our partners across all sectors. We’re committed to building a dynamic labour market, ensuring jobs are a pathway to employment and enhancing social supports for a new and improved labour market.

5 tips for teens on getting volunteer-ready

It’s National Volunteer Week! This year, we’ve put together a “cheat sheet” for Ontario high school students who are required to complete 40 hours of community service before they graduate. If you’re a parent, we hope you’ll share our tips list with your teen for everything they need to know on getting “volunteer-ready.”

CamaraChambers

Camara Chambers
Director, Community Engagement
Volunteer Toronto

1. Start early: It’s never too early to start thinking about your volunteer service. In Ontario, students can start clocking their community service hours starting right after they finish Grade 8 and all the way up until, and including, Grade 12. It often takes several weeks to secure a volunteer position, so it’s best not to leave it to the last minute, especially if you’re close to graduation. “If you have to squeeze all of those 40 hours into two weeks, you’re going to be setting yourself up for failure,” says Camara Chambers, Director of Community Engagement at Volunteer Toronto. “A great time to start volunteering is during the spring when the annual ChangeTheWorld: Youth Volunteering Challenge takes place. Since you can’t volunteer during school hours, many students choose to complete their hours during the summer or even March Break. Volunteering at a number of events is another popular option since it gives young people the chance to split their volunteer hours into smaller chunks of time. “It’s also a great opportunity to try different roles, meet lots of different people and get a behind the scenes look at lots of different events throughout the city,” adds Chambers.

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2. Do your homework: It’s important to find an opportunity that’s a good match for your personality, skills and future career aspirations. Chambers advises all volunteers to narrow their search using the “3 Rs”— reflect, research and reach out. What do you really want to get out of the experience? Maybe you’re focused on getting some valuable experience for your resume. Or perhaps you want to put a particular skill to good use. Are you interested in working with a particular group of people or on a specific issue such as poverty? Or maybe you just need to find a position that fits into your busy schedule and is close to home or school. Knowing what you want will help you narrow your search once you’re ready. It’s also a good idea to talk to your school guidance counsellor to get pre-approval on your position. “Some schools are more flexible than others and will allow you to volunteer just helping your neighbour,” says Chambers. “Others will want you to do it specifically for a non-profit or a charity.” It’s also important to know your rights. You should expect to have the role clearly explained to you and receive some form of training, even if it’s informal. Having a supervisor or adult mentor is another must. Remember that you can’t be paid for your volunteer service but some organizations provide tokens or small honorariums.

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3. Find a role that fits: You’re ready to start your search. The best place to look? Online volunteer databases such as volunteertoronto.ca or yorkinfo.ca that list hundreds of opportunities organized by age and category. If you can’t find what you’re looking for here, you can also contact individual organizations to learn more about any positions that might be available. Talk to your parents and peers for suggestions, or contact your local place of worship or a charity in your neighbourhood.  Don’t forget to factor your personality into the equation. If you’re not comfortable in big groups, choose a role such as one-on-one tutoring. You can even volunteer with your friends at certain fundraising events. Family volunteering opportunities are also available and include delivering meals to seniors. Once you’ve secured your spot, it’s not unusual to complete a brief in-person or phone interview to learn more about the position. Some roles may even require that you attend an information session or day of training.

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4. Put your best foot forward: Although you can’t be paid for your volunteer service, treat this opportunity as a valuable learning experience for the future. “It’s really important to leave a good impression. That means turning up on time, asking lots of questions when you don’t understand your responsibilities and communicating honestly especially if you’re not finding the job enjoyable,”says Chambers. “These people will likely be your reference in the future.” She adds: “If you make a really good impression, your volunteer supervisor will probably introduce you to other people, give you other opportunities or give you more of a leadership role.” And finally, don’t forget to say “thank you” once you’ve completed your position.
CamaraChambers

5. Become a better citizen (and have fun doing it!): Completing your mandatory 40 hours of volunteer service is about much more than just clocking time. If you want to get the most out of your experience, be prepared to learn. Engage with your peers and supervisor to learn more about the issues facing the organization—and the sector—where you’ve selected your position. When you’re done, stay in touch with any friends or contacts you’ve made along the way. “Volunteering is a fantastic way to try new experiences, meet new people and make new friends,” says Chambers. Maybe you’ll even find something you want to stick with over the long-term.”

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Changemakers to watch: Dr. Meb Rashid

Meet Dr. Meb Rashid. He’s the medical director of Toronto’s only in-hospital refugee clinic who has dedicated his career to serving “the world’s heroes.” With his lean, but mighty team, Meb is changing the way care is delivered in the city—and ensuring a refugee’s new life in Canada begins with a healthy start.

Meb

WHO: Meb has been at the helm of Women’s College Hospital’s Crossroads Clinic—which he also helped establish—since 2011. Since then, his team has provided crucial care to nearly 2,000 refugees while helping them effectively navigate a new health-care system in an entirely new country. But Meb’s impact on refugee health extends far beyond Crossroads Clinic’s walls. He’s been a go-to source for connecting newcomers with social services agencies—including United Way–supported COSTI and Access Alliance—to provide access to the wide-ranging supports needed to settle and integrate into a new community. He was also on the steering committee of Canadian Collaboration for Immigrant and Refugee Health (CCIRH) and has even brought together clinicians in a common cause of caring through refugee-focused health networks.

WHY: Meb, who immigrated to Canada from Tanzania when he was young, says he has the “best job in the city” working with newcomers. And we wholeheartedly agree with the importance of his work. Providing timely, accessible supports—include trauma counselling and  language services—to newly-arrived refugees and immigrants is a vital part of United Way’s work helping individuals settle and integrate. “Refugees are an amazing group of people to work with,” he says. “Many have lived through horrific issues, but they arrive in Canada with the desire to put their lives back together. It’s a testament to human resilience.” So then it’s no surprise Meb has made it his personal mission to meet with refugees soon after they arrive in Canada—building trust with patients to ensure their health remains a top priority despite juggling the demands of settling in a new country. For example: finding employment, enrolling children in school or navigating the transit system. The result: newcomers avoiding obstacles they would normally face—from unnecessary emergency room visits to language barriers. In large part due to a dedicated staff with training in tropical medicine and infectious disease, as well as knowledge of the refugee immigration process. “Keeping people healthy helps facilitate their integration,” adds Meb. “It’s essential to starting a new life in Canada.”

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Dr. Meb Rashid with the Crossroads Clinic team.

WHAT’S NEXT: Meb is excited about the future of Crossroads. Not only is the clinic having an impact on the lives of newcomers, but it’s giving emerging practitioners invaluable experience as a leading teaching setting. “We’re starting to produce research that allows us to guide other clinics in the community that perhaps don’t see refugees in the same numbers we do,” explains Meb. “We’re hopeful this evidence will help other physicians better serve refugees and their nuanced needs in a more precise way.” This invaluable insight will undoubtedly help physicians and social service providers alike better understand and respond to the important issues that confront refugees and immigrants.

Want to support United Way’s work making change possible for newcomers and refugees in our communities? Donate today.

5 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! We’re excited to share this list of inspirational women who are changing lives and making our communities better places to live.

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1. Ratna Omidvar: Ratna knows firsthand the struggles of being a newcomer. Born and raised in India, she immigrated to Canada with her husband in 1981 with the hopes of a better life. After years of trying to find work as a teacher, the Order of Canada recipient eventually landed at St. Stephen’s Community House, a United Way–supported agency—and hasn’t looked back since. During her decades-long career in the non-profit sector, the founding executive director of Ryerson’s Global Diversity Exchange has made it her personal mission to help immigrants settle and find jobs once they arrive in Canada. She’s become one of the country’s leading experts on migration, diversity, integration and inclusion and has championed several causes—including DiverseCity onBoard, an innovative program that connects people from visible minority and underrepresented communities to volunteer board positions. Ratna’s passion for her job —and her ability to mobilize community, corporate and labour partners in a common cause of caring and action—is truly awe-inspiring. Recently, her trailblazing efforts helped welcome hundreds of Syrian refugees to Canada by launching Lifeline Syria which recruits, trains and assists sponsor groups. “My work helps ordinary people on their way to success,” explains Ratna. “But what’s more, the work that I do helps Canada re-imagine itself in light of its new demographics, which shapes our identity, values and how our institutions behave.”

2. Hannah Alper: She may only be 13 years old, but this Richmond Hill resident has already demonstrated her ability to create big change when it comes to the world of charitable giving and social justice. When she was just nine, Hannah started a blog to share her growing concern for the environment. She wanted to show the world that doing little things can add up to make a big difference. Soon, she found herself on the speaking circuit, sharing her views on everything from animal rights to youth empowerment. She is an ambassador for Free the Children and ByStander Revolution and a Me to We motivational speaker. She’s also a bit of hero in her own community, where she received a student success award from the York Region District School Board for rallying her school to get involved in an international clean water campaign and local recycling program. Recently, Hannah was a speaker at a United Way of Winnipeg conference where she shared tips with youth leaders to make their communities better. “Take a look around you,” says Hannah. “Find your issue—that thing that you care about—and then get involved. There’s always a way to pitch in.”

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BERNARD WEIL / TORONTO STAR

3. Cyleta Gibson-Sealy: In this Toronto Star article, she was hailed as the “ticket out of poverty” for children in her Steeles-L’Amoreaux neighbourhood.  All because of a homework club she started almost a decade ago after a group of local kids asked for help with reading. Cyleta’s passion project grew so large and so popular that she eventually moved the “Beyond Academics” club to the ground floor of a community housing building at Finch and Birchmount. Today, you can find her helping local children with everything from reading and math to civic literacy and lessons on leadership. “She’s one of those special people who transform streets into communities,” writes the Star’s Catherine Porter. “She sees problems. But she devises solutions.” But that’s not all. In her spare time, the 54-year-old grandmother runs local baseball and soccer camps, started a parents’ club and sits on a community liaison committee. She says much of her community work was inspired by United Way’s Action for Neighbourhood Change that helps local residents create the kind of change they want to see in their community.

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4. Denise Andrea Campbell: Denise’s lifelong mission to create fairness and equity for all people inspires us. As the City of Toronto’s Director of Social Policy, Analysis and Research, she has worked tirelessly to champion poverty reduction and youth success strategies in priority neighbourhoods. In fact, she’s been working as a social change agent since she was 16 years old. She’s collaborated with federal cabinet ministers to create youth engagement programs, has advised on strategy for leading foundations including The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and has even worked internationally on race and gender policies in numerous United Nations forums. Most recently, Denise led the development of the city’s first-ever poverty reduction strategy. “In order to level the playing field, we need to pay attention to those that are most vulnerable and most distant from opportunity,” explains Denise. “That means changing our policies, our programs and even our perspective to support these Torontonians and ensure they have access to the opportunities all people deserve.”

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5. Julie Penasse: For years, Julie Penasse struggled with poverty, abuse and addiction.  But with a whole lot of perseverance and a little help from a United Way–supported agency, she turned her life around. But that’s just the beginning of Julie’s inspiring story. Ever since, she’s been using her personal experience to help others—influencing social policy by ensuring the unique voice of women living in poverty is heard throughout the community. Most recently, she was a key contributor in the city’s community consultations on poverty reduction where she inspired other women to share their stories and advocate for what they need most—things like stable work, affordable housing and childcare. “When you better the woman, you better the world,” says Julie. We couldn’t agree more.

Inspired by one (or more!) of the women on our list?  Send a note of encouragement to uweditor@uwgt.org and we’ll pass your message along.

Your social media cheat sheet: February edition

Good_Act_to_Follow_HomePage_SlideWe know you care about the big issues. Things like poverty, youth unemployment and neighbourhood inequality.

That’s why we do our best here at Imagine a City to keep you up-to-date with the latest on social issues that affect us all—and what we’re doing to tackle these challenges.

A big part of this discussion happens online—right here on our own blog and in countless other social media forums where community partners, thought leaders, journalists and other influencers weigh in on important issues.

Here’s our list of some of our favourite blogs, websites and social media accounts we think are worth checking out.

1. Sara Mojtehedzadeh (@SaraMojtehedz)

Sara Mojtehedzadeh

Sara Mojtehedzadeh
Work & Wealth Reporter, Toronto Star

Are you in-the-know when it comes to poverty and labour issues in our community? If so, Sara Mojtehedzadeh probably has something to do with it. The Toronto Star Work and Wealth reporter is a leading authority on precarious employment and equity issues across the province—and a total must-follow on Twitter. We’re a huge fan of Sara because of her tireless efforts to give some of the most vulnerable residents in our community a voice and because she’s a champion of change. She’s also helped shine a light on our groundbreaking research into precarious employment that revealed more than 40% of people in the Hamilton-GTA experience some degree of insecurity in their work. “It’s important to acknowledge how absolutely fundamental work is not just to income and wealth, but to our sense of purpose, identity and well being,” Sara explained in a recent interview with the Canadian Media Guild. And with a background in conflict and peace studies and comparative politics, it’s evident that covering the work and wealth beat is more than just a job for Sara—it’s her passion.

2. Kwame McKenzie: Wellesley Institute blog

Dr. Kwame McKenzie

Kwame McKenzie
CEO, Wellesley Institute

How are health and poverty related? Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute, and a regular blogger for the organization, recently wrote this compelling post on the importance of ensuring everyone has equal access to healthcare, regardless of the barriers they face. Kwame is also a United Way board trustee and a CAMH psychiatrist who is considered a leading expert on the social causes of mental illness, suicide and the development of effective, equitable health systems. He argues that socioeconomic challenges such as income inequality, poor housing, stress and access to nutritious food drive disparities in health, making it more difficult for low-income individuals to be healthy and to access health services. Kwame believes that all three levels of government and multiple partners across the city need to work together to ensure that health and policy go hand-in-hand.

3. Furniture Bank (@furniture_bank)

Furniture Bank

We think Furniture Bank is a really great example of an innovative social enterprise. This socially-driven business, supported by United Way, helps individuals and families who are newcomers or are transitioning out of homelessness or abusive situations turn a new house into a home by providing furniture at no cost. It also provides training and work opportunities to people facing barriers to employment. Visit Furniture Bank’s Instagram account for photos of funky furniture items they receive for donation and inspiring stories of lives changed—including one Syrian refugee family whose home was furnished just in time for the holidays.

Want to learn more about social enterprise? Then be sure to check out the upcoming Social Enterprise Toronto Conference on March 10.

Don’t miss a second of the conversation! Subscribe to Imagine a City to get the top social influencer, blog and website recommendations delivered straight to your inbox.

Changemakers to watch: Yasin Osman

We’re pretty excited to introduce you to Yasin Osman.  He’s a 23-year-old Regent Park resident and photography phenom who captures the heart and soul of his beloved neighbourhood with the click of a shutter. His stunning images—which he posts to his thousands of followers on Instagram, are raw and real—Yasin’s way of showcasing all that makes him proud of the place he grew up. When he’s not busy working as an early childhood educator (ECE), he’s inspiring local kids and youth through #ShootForPeace, a pioneering photography program he created to inspire young people to explore art outside their neighbourhood.

Yasin

WHO: Yasin grew up in Regent Park with his mother who worked hard to make ends meet. He often saw firsthand the impact that a lack of opportunities can have on a neighbourhood—from poverty to unemployment. But despite the challenges faced by many Regent Park residents, Yasin is remarkably hopeful about the revitalization of his neighbourhood. His stunning photos tell stories of perseverance, resilience and the power of community. And others are taking notice of Yasin’s talent, too. He’s won numerous awards for his work including a Basquiat Neon Crown from the Art Gallery of Ontario and an Adelaide Gyamfi Award from The Remix Project, a United Way–funded agency. He’s also been named one of Pique’s Top 100 Artists from Toronto.

WHAT: Yasin uses his camera to document everything from pictures of kids out for an -evening bike ride.

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To breathtaking cityscapes.

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And candid snaps of residents in his community.

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But what caused Yasin to pick up a camera is just as interesting. At 13, after noticing the structural changes happening in his neighbourhood, he decided to use the camera on his mom’s cell phone to capture the transformation. Years later, he decided to pursue photography more seriously—a decision his fans (including us!) are thankful for. Now, he’s working with big-name companies including Facebook, Adidas and VICE.

WHY: Yasin loves kids. So when he’s not working as an ECE at Community Centre 55, he’s running his budding #ShootForPeace program, an initiative that brings young people from Regent Park together to learn about photography. It all started when some local kids noticed his Instagram and asked him to teach them how to take similar photos. “At first, I wasn’t sure if they were serious about learning photography, but they were,” says Yasin. “Sometimes we undermine the intelligence of children, but they’re capable of so much when it’s something that interests them.”

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Yasin Osman (centre) with #ShootForPeace program participants.

Participants have soaked up as much knowledge as possible from Yasin—not to mention guest artists that join the weekly program including NBA Canada photographer Charlie Lindsay and even Oliver El-Khatib, the manager of Toronto’s own Drake. “A program like this isn’t something all of us had when we were younger,” explains Yasin. “One of the kids told me that he never thought he could be so good at something. It’s amazing to see how it has changed the way they see themselves.”

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Youth in the #ShootForPeace program check out a photo taken by NBA Canada photographer Charlie Lindsay.

WHAT’S NEXT: Yasin has big plans in store for 2016! “I’m constantly hearing from kids across Toronto who want to get involved,” he says. “It would be amazing to offer this program to more kids who would normally not have the opportunity to learn about photography.” And so Yasin’s putting the wheels in motion to do exactly that. Currently, he’s in talks with a community organization to expand #ShootForPeace across the city. Stay tuned to see what this Changemaker is up to next. We’re sure it’ll be nothing short of inspiring!

GOOD ADVICE:
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What is “hidden” homelessness?

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Stephen Gaetz
Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

When most of us think of homelessness, we picture people living on urban streets or spending their days and nights in temporary shelters. In Toronto, for example, some 5,000 people find themselves without a place to live on any given night.

But homelessness isn’t just a “big city” issue. In York Region, made up of nine mostly suburban municipalities, homelessness is a growing issue with its own set of complex challenges. One in 8 people also live in poverty.

Imagine a City spoke with Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, co-author of a report with United Way about youth homelessness in York Region and York University professor about what we can do about it.

1. Homelessness is often hidden: “There’s often public perception that homelessness is a downtown issue, but it’s not,” says Gaetz. “There’s poverty in the suburbs, but it’s often hidden.” A lack of affordable housing is a serious community issue in York Region—housing prices have soared in the past decade and the rental market is dismal. With the wait list for rental housing higher than the number of units, individuals and families experiencing poverty have no choice but to stay in inadequate housing. For example, some “couch surf” with friends or neighbours, while others—many who are newcomers—are forced to double or even triple up with relatives just to make ends meet.Suburbs

2. Homelessness is spread out: When we think of Toronto, the city’s busy urban core often comes to mind. But in York Region, where its nine municipalities don’t have a downtown centre, services and supports are situated few and far between, making them difficult to identify and access. As a result, mobility is a major issue and homelessness is dispersed. “The transit infrastructure in York is largely built to accommodate privately-owned vehicles making it tough for homeless individuals to move throughout the region and access services,” says Gaetz. “People often have to leave their communities to access help. In turn, they lose their natural supports—including family, friends and neighbours—all key factors that can help someone move forward and avoid homelessness.”

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To better understand this issue in York Region, United Way led the region’s first-ever Point-in-Time Count on Jan. 20 and 21. “Determining the extent, demographics, and needs of those experiencing absolute homelessness—in shelters and on the streets—at a single point in time is key to reducing it,” says Michelynn Laflèche, Director of Research, Public Policy & Evaluation at United Way Toronto & York Region. “This information will help us inform strategies to champion change in the region.”

3. Community supports are sparse: Unprecedented population growth in York Region and higher proportions of newcomers and seniors have led to service gaps that make it hard for individuals to access crucial support. Gaetz says in Toronto, for example, there are roughly 4,000 shelter beds for the city’s 2.6 million residents. However, in York, there are only 130 beds for a population of 1 million. “Emergency supports are good quality in York Region, but there are not a lot of them,” says Gaetz.

LeavingHomeReportFor example, Blue Door Shelters, supported by United Way, operates the only family shelter in York Region providing food, counselling and a safe and supportive refuge for homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless. Adds Gaetz: “If community services aren’t visible in your neighbourhood, you might assume they’re not there. This causes people to either uproot and go to Toronto for support, or not access crucial services at all.” But Gaetz says an increase in more than just emergency supports is needed in the region. “We need to prevent people from becoming homeless, while also supporting others to move out of homelessness,” he says. “Shifting our way of thinking from emergency response to prevention and transition can have a big impact.”

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What does homelessness look like where you live?  Visit ProjectUnited, for eye-opening videos, audio and written stories of people experiencing poverty right here at home. Conceived and created by two engaged Ryerson University students, ProjectUnited is a volunteer-driven partnership with United Way that aims to raise awareness of the barriers people face in our community.

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Changemakers to watch: Zahra Ebrahim

It’s a new year—and we’re excited to introduce you to some trailblazing changemakers across our region. With innovation, passion and a whole lot of hard work, they’re helping change lives and transform entire communities.

First up? Zahra Ebrahim, Co-CEO of Doblin Canada, a design-led innovation firm based in Toronto that works to solve tough business challenges in the non-profit, government and private sectors.

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WHO:  She’s been called a “civic rockstar” by her fans on social media. She was featured as one of “Tomorrow’s Titans” in Toronto Life’s Most Influential issue. And she recently shared her city building passion as a featured speaker at TEDxToronto.  But it’s the urbanist’s trailblazing work connecting 75 youth from a Toronto priority neighbourhood with an opportunity to completely transform their local community hub that earned her a spot on our list.

WHY:  With a background in architecture and design, Zahra played an integral role in the Community. Design. Initiative., an award-winning collaboration between architects, designers, urban planners, academics and residents. The multi-year project is transforming a United Way agency—East Scarborough Storefront—into an innovative, 10,000-square-foot community services hub in Kingston Galloway Orton Park. “This project is a great example of finding ways to engage people who wouldn’t ordinarily be involved in a multi-year building initiative like this—including young people living in poverty—in the design, fundraising, permitting, zoning and building of this inner suburban agency,” says Zahra. Learn more here.

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An architectural drawing of East Scarborough Storefront.

WHAT’S NEXT? Zahra will be busy in 2016! She’s currently fulfilling her dream of bringing design thinking education to high school students across Canada through her support of The Learning Partnership. She’s also helping some of the country’s biggest organizations rethink how they do business by introducing consumer-first strategies that put equal emphasis on financial and social bottom lines. Zahra also continues to be passionate about driving change in the non-profit sector by connecting communities and decision makers to create meaningful, sustainable change. “I believe passionately that we need to share ownership with communities. I’ve always been really focused on the ‘how’ of change-making in the non-profit space versus the ‘what’.”

GOOD ADVICE:

 

3 things you made possible in 2015

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_Good-to-knowIt’s almost 2016!  As the year draws to a close, we wanted to say a big thank you to each of you who work hard every single day to help change lives and create possibility for tens of thousands of people across Toronto and York Region.

Here’s a recap of 3 things you helped make possible in 2015:

  1. A future that works: Precarious, or insecure, employment affects more than 40% of people in the Hamilton-GTA. With the support of people like you—who care about the big issues—we were able to further our research and delve deeper into this vital socioeconomic problem. We released The Precarity Penalty last March and convened partners from across the province to discuss solutions for a labour market that works. And the best part? By shining a spotlight on this important issue, individual lives are changing for the better. Angel Reyes, for example, spent years working in precarious, or insecure, temp positions and dealing with the daily, harsh realities of living on a low income. When he was laid off from his most recent job earlier this year, he worried about making ends meet. But there’s a happy ending to this story. After sharing his journey with the Toronto Star, the 61-year-old was inundated with messages of support. The Star reports Angel has since found a permanent, unionized job and a new, subsidized apartment. “My intention is justice,” Angel told the Star. “Not just for me. It’s for the many, many workers in Ontario and Canada and the world who are living in circumstances like me.”

  1. Historic legislation for communities: Heard of Bill 6? This new law—passed by the Ontario government on June 4, 2015—brings benefits such as employment and apprenticeship to young people in the same communities where it works. You played a key role in bringing Community Benefits to fruition, which includes large infrastructure projects like the Eglinton Crosstown line. We’re proud to be part of this initiative that connects residents in priority neighbourhoods with skills training, community supports—and jobs with a future.

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  1. A roadmap to help end poverty: TO Prosperity—Toronto’s first-ever anti-poverty plan—was unanimously passed by city council on November 4, 2015. This historic initiative sets a 20-year goal for tackling growing inequality and improving access to opportunity. It promises good jobs and living wages, more affordable housing, expanded transit in the inner suburbs, and better access to community services. United Way is proud to have played a key role in shaping this groundbreaking strategy, thanks to your support.

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The Top 5 stories that warmed our hearts in 2015

Each and every day, we’re touched by remarkable stories of personal transformation and possibility in the places where we live, work and raise our families.

Although it was tough to narrow down our choices, here are the top 5 stories that touched our hearts in 2015.

1. Support for Syria: Samantha Jackson and Farzin Yousefian made big headlines this past November when the Toronto couple announced they were cancelling their upcoming wedding party to host a smaller fundraiser with all the proceeds going to sponsor a Syrian refugee family of four. “We felt we had an obligation, in light of the humanitarian crisis, to contribute, and we thought this was the perfect opportunity to do that,” Farzin told the Toronto Star. Their story went viral and inspired hundreds of people to donate to this worthy cause that has raised $51,500 to date. This incredible young duo tied the knot in a smaller ceremony at City Hall last October. We wish them well on their journey ahead!

2. From homeless to Harvard: Tonika Morgan reminds us of all that is possible with lots of passion and hard work. After dropping out of high school at 17 and spending her teenage years in and out of homeless shelters, the now 32-year-old decided to turn her life around. Determined to attend university, Tonika managed to cobble together several part-time jobs—including a support worker at a United Way agency—to help put herself through school. After graduating from Ryerson’s diversity and equity studies program in 2008, she set her sights even higher: Harvard. “I applied and I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t think I would get in on the first try,” Tonika told CBC News. She was shocked when an acceptance letter from the Ivy League institution arrived in the mail last spring and turned to the Internet to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help make her dream a reality. Hundreds of people were inspired by her story and came together to help her cover 100% of the $71,000 USD price tag. This past fall, Tonika headed south of the border with an entire country cheering her on!

3. The gift of life: We couldn’t help but be inspired by the remarkable story of “miracle twins” Phuoc and Binh Wagner who were adopted from Vietnam by a Kingston, Ont., couple in 2012. Both girls desperately needed liver transplants—but the twins’ father, Michael, could only donate part of his liver to help save one of his daughters. The Wagner family turned to social media to appeal for additional organ donors and their story sparked international media attention. But what happened next was truly remarkable—demonstrating the power of a compassionate community to help strangers in need. Nearly 600 potential organ donors from across North America contacted Binh’s doctor in Toronto offering to help save her life—and the lives of countless other recipients on Ontario’s organ wait list. The four-year-old is now happy and healthy after receiving a transplant from an anonymous donor last April and joined her sister this fall for their first day of kindergarten. This holiday season, the Wagner clan plan to celebrate the best gift of all—each other!

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4. A birthday to remember: Odin Camus had a birthday he’ll never forget earlier this year. The 13-year-old Peterborough, Ont., resident has Aspberger’s syndrome and sometimes struggled to make friends. After none of his classmates RSVP’d to his birthday party, Odin’s awesome mom Melissa turned to social media for help. The response from the online community was absolutely incredible. More than 20,000 people—including athletes, actors and politicians—took to Twitter to wish Odin a Happy Birthday. Hundreds of friends, family and even complete strangers also rallied together to throw Odin a party at a local bowling alley bringing cards, gifts and well wishes to celebrate the special occasion. We love Odin’s story because it demonstrates what a community is capable of when it rallies together for a common cause. It’s also a wonderful reminder of how a simple act of kindness can have a transformational effect on someone’s life.

5. A future that works: Angel Reyes spent years working in precarious, or insecure, temp positions and dealing with the daily, harsh realities of living on a low income. When he was laid off from his most recent job earlier this year, he worried about making ends meet. But there’s a happy ending to this story. After sharing his journey with the Toronto Star, the 61-year-old was inundated with messages of support. The Star reports Angel has since found a permanent, unionized job and a new, subsidized apartment. The best part?  Angel is using his hopeful story to shine a spotlight on the issue of precarious employment and to help spark a larger conversation about the need for labour reform in the province. “My intention is justice,” Angel told the Star. “Not just for me. It’s for the many, many workers in Ontario and Canada and the world who are living in circumstances like me.”

And you’ve probably heard about Walter, but if not, here’s a story we just couldn’t leave off our list!

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6. A story for the ages: Walter Decker inspired hundreds of people last month when he became the oldest person ever to climb the CN Tower for United Way. When the 91-year-old retired, he made a commitment to stay healthy and active. The Hamilton, Ont., resident walks, completes 60 pushups every day and climbs the Hamilton escarpment at least twice-a-week. Impressive, right? But when Walter conquered Toronto’s most-famous vertical landmark in just over 45 minutes on November 8, 2015, he also stepped up on behalf of thousands of people and families across Toronto and York Region. “It makes me feel good to know I’m helping people that need United Way’s support,” he says. Way to go, Walter!

Want to get inspiring stories delivered straight to your inbox? Subscribe to Community Matters and see all the good work you make possible.

How to show you’re a company that cares

The holiday season is here. Around this time of year, we hear from many of you who are looking for opportunities to give back to the nearly 1 in 5 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region who live in poverty.

This also includes many small- and medium-sized businesses that are looking for thoughtful and impactful ways to change lives locally—but might not know where to start.

So we put together a few suggestions. One place to start? Seasonal volunteer opportunities—such as delivering holiday meals to individuals and families in need or packing holiday hampers.

“It can be a lot of fun to come together with your colleagues outside of a work environment in the spirit of giving back,” says Camara Chambers, Director of Community Engagement at Volunteer Toronto, which currently has several holiday-specific volunteering opportunities listed on its website.

Since volunteering opportunities in the non-profit sector tend to go quickly around the holidays, Chambers has a few other ideas for employees and businesses to give back. These include organizing a clothing drive at your office, creating care kits for homeless shelters, contributing to local toy drives or even donating items such as food and blankets to animal shelters.

Another way to demonstrate that your company cares? Make a gift through an online giving catalogue such as United Way’s Warmest Wishes.

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It’s a quick and easy way to spread some warmth—including much-needed winter necessities such as clothing, food and care—to people right here in our communities.

And the need is great. On any given night, some 5,000 people in Toronto alone find themselves homeless and facing winter’s harsh realities. A meal, a pair of winter boots or a warm winter jacket can help change a life.

“It makes us feel good to be able to give back locally,” says Andrew Buck, CEO of Toronto-based Juice Worldwide. “Gift giving opportunities like this are a win-win for us. Our staff can demonstrate in a very tangible way that they really care about making a difference in the lives of people right here in our communities.”

Chambers agrees. “In recent years, we’ve increasingly seen consumers looking to buy local and to really support their local communities,” says Chambers. “Whether it’s buying a winter jacket for someone in need or wrapping presents for a charity toy drive, giving back in these ways really puts a heart behind what companies are doing.”

Now we want to hear from you. What is your workplace doing to give back this holiday season?  Why not join others in giving the gift of warmth? Warmestwishes.ca

 

You asked: Is there a right amount to give?

There’s an old saying that goes, “it’s better to give than to receive.” And as the holidays approach, we are reminded how true that is of countless Canadians who open their pocketbooks every year to help those in need.

John Hallward, Founder & Chairman GIV3 Foundation

John Hallward,
Founder & Chairman
GIV3 Foundation

A  2012 Statistics Canada report on charitable giving found nearly 24 million of us—or 84% of the population aged 15+—made a financial donation to a charitable or non-profit organization, for a total of $10.6 billion. Canadians clearly understand the importance of philanthropy.

Yet we often receive questions from many of you wondering if there’s a right or appropriate amount to give.

According to a 2010 Ipsos survey, the majority of Canadians believe the answer is 3% of income (based on an average annual household income of approximately $65,000.)

The survey also asked nearly 1,000 people across the country what they thought was a “fair and reasonable” amount to give at different income levels. As income levels got higher the answers as a percentage of income also rose.

At $200,000, for example, the majority of respondents said approximately 5% was an appropriate amount to give. This dipped to 1.8% for a personal annual income of $30,000.

In reality, however, according to Revenue Canada T1 tax returns, we only average about 0.8% of income, says John Hallward, founder and chairman of the GIV3 Foundation, a Montreal-based non-profit whose mission is to encourage Canadians to give more time and money to causes they’re passionate about. GIV3 is also involved in educating Canadians about the impact of their giving as individuals—and collectively.

Hallward explains how even a small increase in annual giving could add up to big change for society at large. “We know Canadians care—and that we have the capacity to give,” says Hallward.  “If we could get Canadians from 0.8% to 1%, that’s a $2 billion gain annually to the non-profit sector. If you can double that to 1.5% that’s an $8 billion gain,” he adds.

That’s a significant amount of additional funds to invest in important causes—here at home and globally—ranging from medical innovation and the environment to poverty and human rights.

Hallward adds: ”In a sense, we have a moral obligation to give back for all of the benefits we have received from prior generations of donors. If you can’t give money, you can contribute in other ways. You can volunteer, give blood or even teach a child the importance of donating $5 from their piggybank.”

“Philanthropy is very emotional and very personal,” he adds. “My advice to donors is to invest in causes they’re involved in and passionate about. It should actually feel good to give.”

Now we want to hear from you. Do you agree?  Is there a right amount to give?

4 youth who inspire us

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_SnapshotOver the past year we’ve met some incredible young people throughout Toronto and York Region. We’re excited to share their stories with you and hope you’ll be as inspired as we are by everything they’ve accomplished with a lot of hard work and passion…and a little help from United Way.

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1. Justine Chen See: Justine worried that she’d never have a job. Born with an intellectual disability, the 23-year-old faced much uncertainty as to what her future had in store. But with a little help from her incredibly dedicated mom and a whole lot of determination and hard work, Justine found employment—and a community—at a tuck shop in a long-term care facility in Richmond Hill. It’s just one of the many ways United Way-funded agency Community Living York South is helping families like Justine’s help themselves. Justine loves her job and handles various responsibilities including serving customers, preparing food and doing inventory—tasks she never thought she’d have on her resume. She is a wonderful reminder of what people of all abilities are capable of when they’re given the opportunity. Way to go, Justine!

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2. Matthew Romeo: Matthew Romeo may be a big-time DJ and speaker—but it’s where he started from that inspired us to add him to our list. Matthew moved to Toronto when he was 18 with only two bags of clothes, less than $2 in his pocket and a dream to pursue a career as a musician. But, he soon found himself living on the streets: hungry, depressed and afraid. Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, Matthew connected with The Remix Project, a United Way-funded initiative that helps young people find careers in creative industries. With passion, determination and a whole lot of talent, “DJ Romeo” turned his dream into a reality. Now he spins records with some of the biggest names in the biz (Toronto-born Drake!) and finds ways to inspire other youth with his story of personal transformation and possibility.

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3. Christianne De Jesus: At just 19, Christianne inspires us with her passion for community and her genuine desire to help others. Despite juggling a busy course load and pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor, Christianne saw an opportunity to unite her neighbourhood around the power of song. With a little help from United Way, the piano teacher and university student started a neighbourhood choir that brought members—young and old—of her diverse Bathurst-Finch community together. The choir, which meets weekly, has become a source of pride for both Christianne and its 30-plus members who have developed strong ties to each other and the community. “It makes me so happy to know my neighbours have become friends,” she says. And like her neighbours, we’re singing her praises. We can’t wait to see what’s next for Christianne!

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4. Cheyenne Squires: Not too long ago, Cheyenne was on the brink of homelessness, in need of a warm meal and shelter from the wrath of winter. But a visit to Native Child and Family Services of Toronto changed everything. There, Cheyenne found more than just the support she needed to get back on her feet—she also found a way to give back. Now, you can still find Cheyenne at the same United Way-funded agency—but she’s currently employed there as a Relief Worker. She makes us proud because she uses her experience to help youth just like her navigate complex social challenges from poverty to unemployment. She found her own possibility and now she’s helping others achieve their full potential, too.

To learn more about how we’re supporting youth facing barriers realize bright futures, check out our Youth Success Strategy.

What if you had to choose?

2015_Make_The_Month_Homepage_SlideImagine having to choose between eating or keeping a roof over your head? Or what if staying home to care for your sick child could cost you your job? For 1 in 4 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region, these daily scenarios are a harsh reality. That’s because when you live in poverty—there’s no easy decision.

Thankfully, many of us don’t have to make these difficult choices. But how do you understand poverty if you don’t live it?  For Make the Month Day, we’re inviting you to try out United Way’s digital poverty experience to get a better idea of what it’s like to live on a low income. Let us know what you think and test your knowledge of poverty in Toronto and York Region by completing this quiz.

For detailed answers, click here.

3 things you should know about income inequality

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_Good-to-knowWhen most of us think of income inequality, we think about gaps between those who are doing well financially and those who are not. But you may be surprised to learn that income inequality is about much more than just a pay cheque.

Here are 3 more things you might not know about income inequality:  

1. It undermines fairness: With the rise of income inequality, it’s not simply your effort that determines whether or not you’re going to do well. Increasingly it’s circumstances beyond your control including your background, where you were born, how much money your parents make or your postal code,” says Pedro Barata, United Way’s VP of Communications & Public Affairs. This creates deep divides between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” undermining fairness and creating an environment where hard work is no longer seen as a guarantee for success. Watch this video to learn more about the importance of ensuring individuals and families across our region have equal opportunities to build better lives and stronger futures.

2. It makes entire communities feel “invisible:” “People living in poverty will often talk about lack of access to material items such as money for transit or food. But they may also mention their inability to do things like buy a birthday present for a friend, go to the movies or catch up over a cup of coffee. Sometimes they can’t afford to leave their house,” says Barata. “All of this adds up to social isolation and feeling excluded. People living in poverty will often say they’re invisible.” There is also a tendency towards thinking that the voices of people living on a low income aren’t important. “Who gets to talk to politicians? Who gets quoted in newspapers? Who gets to go to meetings? For a variety of reasons, it’s typically not people living on a low income,” adds Barata. “Often they’re too busy holding down a number of jobs and they live in communities that are too often left out of decision making processes. The consequence? Entire neighbourhoods become divided along income and social lines and we don’t live up to the promise of being a region “where everyone can come from all walks of life and live in harmony.”

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3. It deflates our hope for the future: Rapidly growing income inequality is worrisome to all of us. In a recent report conducted by United Way, 86% of survey respondents indicated that they felt the gap between those with high and low incomes is too large. A joint Toronto Region Board of Trade and United Way report also points to a decidedly gloomy outlook as only the smallest number of citizens believe the next generation will experience the progress achieved by previous generations. In fact, for the first time in a century, young people are expected to be materially less well off in adulthood than their parents. For youth facing additional barriers—including poverty, lower levels of education and discrimination—the challenges are even greater. 

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To learn more about how we’re working together with our partners to bring hope, fairness and opportunity to individuals and families across our region, read this guest post from Michelynn Laflèche, United Way’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation.

 

Hope and a new home for refugees

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Mario Calla
Executive Director,
COSTI Immigrant Services

Our guest blogger this week is Mario Calla, Executive Director of COSTI Immigrant Services, a United Way-funded agency that provides programs and services to help newcomers and refugees settle in Canada. Mario is also a member of United Way’s Campaign Cabinet and sits on the steering committee of Lifeline Syria, an organization that recruits, trains and assists sponsor groups to welcome and support Syrian refugees coming to Canada.

Somewhere in Lebanon, Dima’s brother is desperate for luck to turn his way. He’s there with his wife and three young children. Not long ago, they managed a dangerous escape from Syria. Now they’re stuck in limbo as they search in vain for some way to get to Canada. Dima’s brother heard his family might find safe passage through Turkey — but they were forced to turn back when it became too dangerous. They returned to Lebanon, where they are right now. Still waiting. Still hopeful.

It’s a journey Dima knows only too well. And it’s a story I hear so often it has become painfully routine. At COSTI, I meet dozens of refugees every day. People fleeing Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan. The fact they are prepared to take such risks speaks to how hopeless things have become for them.

For people like Dima and her brother, escaping from suffering and persecution is just the first step in a long journey. When they arrive here in their new country, they encounter a new series of challenges. Thankfully, Canadians are compassionate. People are sponsoring families. Bay Street companies are fundraising to support their settlement. Groups of lawyers are offering pro bono assistance to help refugees with immigration paperwork. Our community is coming together like never before.

At COSTI, we’re doing everything we can too—alongside a network of United Way agencies that helps newcomers in every corner of Toronto and York Region. The Ralph Chiodo Family Immigrant Reception Centre is the first home in Canada to over 17,000 refugees since it first opened its doors 26 years ago. We’ve been one of the first places refugees come when they land here in Canada. Some need medical attention. Others have issues that go beyond the physical—they need counselling and support to overcome post-traumatic stress. Everyone needs shelter, clothing, food—and friendship.

As refugees begin to settle into their new life, it’s our job to help them get their feet planted firmly on the ground. We help them find a place to live, open a bank account and apply for a social insurance number. We make sure their kids get enrolled in school. COSTI connects newcomers with employment supports and settlement services to help ensure their long-term success. Ultimately, our goal is to ensure everyone has everything they need. And it’s working. We’ve managed to help thousands of refugee families get the best start for their new life in Canada.

But our work isn’t done. Like so many others, Dima’s brother is determined to make his way here — and my wife and I are just as determined. We, with the support of friends, have applied to privately sponsor Dima’s brother and his family. Dima, my friends and family and the family of United Way agencies will be ready to greet them when they arrive. Working together, we can extend our embrace to all refugees who arrive in our country in search of a better life.

Visit United Way’s Facebook page to learn how you can help refugees and newcomers get the best start in their new life.

A vote for the future

With the federal election fast approaching, countless Canadians will be heading to the ballot box on October 19 to vote on the issues that matter most to them. But many residents who face barriers—including a low-income, lack of education, and newcomer status—are not engaged in the democratic process.

United Way recently teamed up with Samara Canada to bring a unique voting simulation experience—Vote PopUp—to residents at Community Hubs in two priority neighbourhoods. The goal? To foster interest in the upcoming election—and to generate a larger discussion about the importance of adding your voice to the conversation to fuel community change and ensure a more promising future.Sept 3 Vote PopUp participant writing I'm voting because pt 1 (2)

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Retchel Morales, Participant, Vote PopUp Volunteer, Bathurst-Finch ANC

Imagine a City spoke with Retchel Morales, a Vote PopUp participant and volunteer at Bathurst-Finch Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC), a resident-led initiative supported by United Way that works to create vibrant neighbourhoods where people feel a sense of belonging.

1. Tell me a little bit about Vote PopUp training and what you learned.

The civic process varies greatly throughout the world, so casting your vote for the first time in Canada can be intimidating—whether you’re a newcomer or a local first-time voter. I’m originally from the Philippines and although I’m not a Canadian citizen yet, I took part in the workshop to ensure I’m prepared when the time comes. We learned about registering, ID requirements, locating a polling station, and we even practiced casting a ballot.

2. Why do you think civic literacy is important?

In any democratic society, residents need to have a say in their future. Considering voter participation is continuing to drop in Canada, civic literacy is incredibly important now more than ever. That’s how change happens—by having your voice heard, engaging in your community and actively participating in the democratic process. Knowledge is power. When you have the information and the right tools, you can make informed decisions to encourage change.
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3. Voting isn’t the only way to bring about community change.

It’s true. Although many of my neighbours are newcomers and are not eligible to vote, it’s not the only way we can bring about change—whether it’s through small scale resident-led projects or advocating for vital needs in your neighbourhood or region. Community engagement starts at a grassroots level. A perfect example of this is the Bathurst-Finch Community Choir, which began when one inspiring young woman had a simple idea to create a neighbourhood choir. With the support of the Community Hub and ANC, she used her passion for music to connect her community. The choir has helped newcomers build relationships with their neighbours and is even helping seniors overcome isolation. When a community comes together for a common cause, meaningful change begins.DSC_5776

4. What are some other issues that matter to you and the people that live in your neighbourhood?

I’ve talked to many Bathurst-Finch residents about the issues in the community that matter to them. Three concerns stand out: affordable housing, employment and childcare. I see families who are not able to access childcare because the cost of rent is too high. Others struggle to find meaningful employment. Thankfully, we have resources like United Way’s Bathurst-Finch Community Hub that helps tackle some of these issues. But, there’s always more room for change.

To learn more about how United Way empowers residents to build better lives for themselves and their communities, check out our Building Strong Neighbourhood Strategy.

 

Looking beyond our borders for solutions to affordable housing

By Pedro Barata, VP, Communications & Public Affairs and John Brodhead, Executive Director, CityWorks

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Housing affordability is key to city livability. With average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment spiking to $1,800 and over 78,000 households currently on the city’s social housing waiting list, calling Toronto home is becoming more difficult. And not only for low-income residents. Modest and middle-income families, too, are increasingly feeling the squeeze of stagnating incomes outstripped by the rising cost of living. The GTA Housing Action Lab is a collaborative working group bringing together diverse partners on the housing front, including United Way Toronto & York Region and Evergreen CityWorks to help move the affordable housing agenda forward.  This summer, we ventured to New York City to search for creative solutions to Toronto’s affordable housing crisis.

Here are five things we learned:

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently launched a 10-year affordable housing strategy to address significant housing challenges—median apartment rents that rose by 75% between 2000 and 2012 and the loss of 400,000 affordable apartments in the same period, to name a few. A closer look at New York’s game plan promised to inform and inspire our own way forward.

1. Champions with ambitious plans will create results

During his campaign, Mayor de Blasio heard about housing issues in every community. Since taking office, he’s made it his signature initiative, focusing on affordability for low, modest and middle income families. He’s set bold targets—200,000 affordable units in 10 years—to rally other stakeholders around an affordable housing strategy. And that rallying cry has ensured that housing has become a cross-agency concern, bridging jurisdictions from education and children’s services to libraries, parks and transportation.

2. There’s no one silver bullet to creating affordable housing.

Affordable housing is a large and complex issue. In New York, where the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the city’s largest landlord, is responsible to 400,000 residents, 176,000 households and 110,000 kids, they’ve looked for solutions across sectors. They’re balancing new builds with preservation of existing units—indeed, over half of the city’s target focuses on preservation of aging and affordable rental, mostly in the private sector. Public lands and assets are being leveraged, while private sector engagement requires the support of a clear development process and fair and predictable incentives. And various measures such as tax benefits and rent supplements play a role. Hudson Properties is just one developer that has truly embraced the city’s incentives to build new affordable units through inclusionary housing policy.

3. Partnerships are key to success.

Cities can’t tackle the challenges of affordable housing alone. They need developers and not for profits to help keep driving that agenda forward. In fact, municipal investment in NYC to the tune of $8 billion over 10 years is expected to leverage $41 billion from the private sector. State and federal governments also play a large role in funding building and housing supplements in both the private and social housing sector. And fundamental to any success, of course, is building on the interests and insights of residents. After all, it’s not just about housing; it’s about creating communities. Getting locals involved and giving them the tools to be part of the project is essential. Grassroots community group Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco) in the Bronx is just one example of an organization whose efforts are contributing to a vibrant and healthy community.

4. Housing strengthens local economies.

Construction and preservation of 200,000 housing units is expected to generate 194,000 construction jobs and over 7,000 permanent jobs targeted to the city’s employment initiatives. And at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), where almost 25% of the employees are residents, they’re now planning to double the number of employees working on greening initiatives from 2,000 to 4,000.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Be persistent.

New Yorkers across the affordable housing sector showed us that they don’t give up in the face of major challenges. They’re energized and ready to find solutions. And that perseverance is taking them where they want to go. Already in the first year of this massive undertaking, 17,376 units have been funded. The Via Verde Project in the South Bronx illustrates how this new approach is taking root and transforming a great city to make it a better home for all.

The visit to New York offered some great lessons for the City and Region on how to tackle this important challenge. Fortunately, there seems to be a renewed energy behind Toronto’s affordable housing agenda. Just as the provincial government wrapped up public consultations for their Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy, Toronto City Hall introduced its new ‘Open Door’ approach to fast-track building of affordable housing.

The opportunity is in front of us, but we must take it.

3 things you might not know about poverty

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_Good-to-knowDid you know that 1 in 5 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region live in poverty? It’s true. Every day, individuals and families across our region face homelessness, unemployment, a lack of affordable housing and the effects of deepening income inequality. These startling facts are a vital reminder that there is still much work to be done in addressing this complex issue.

Here are three things you might not know about poverty here in Toronto and York Region:

1. Nearly one-third of all children in Toronto live in low-income households.

According to a report released last year, 15 of Toronto’s 140 neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 40% or more. Fifty-five neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 30% or more. In places like Regent Park, Moss Park and Thorncliffe, child poverty rates climb to more than 50%. Poverty in childhood can have a lifelong impact—affecting a child’s ability to grow, develop and learn. It is up to all of us to address this growing issue and to work together to make investments in children and families that will have a lasting impact on the social, economic and physical well-being of our whole community.

Test 2. Poverty is concentrated in certain neighbourhoods.

Entire neighbourhoods are falling behind when the gap between those who are doing well financially—and those who are not—continues to widen. The number of low-income communities in 2005 was 271, compared to 97 in 1970, leading to a geographic concentration of poverty, particularly in Toronto’s inner suburbs. Our research also shows us that income inequality has grown faster in Toronto than in other major Canadian cities, outpacing both provincial and national averages.  Opportunities to build a good life—including quality jobs, affordable housing and meaningful social networks—aren’t equally available to everyone.

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3. Poverty impacts decision making.

A lack of food or money can cause people to focus obsessively on the object of scarcity, leaving less “mental bandwidth” for other aspects of a person’s life. That’s according to Dr. Eldar Shafir, professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and the co-author of Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much. “There’s a lot of data indicating people living in poverty don’t do well with decision-making. So the question is: Are they in poverty because of bad decisions, or are the bad decisions somehow the result of poverty?” says Shafir. Watch the video to learn more about psychological issues related to poverty.

Want to learn more about how your support is changing the lives of people living in poverty? Subscribe to this blog to read the latest insight from thought-leaders across our community and stay up-to-date on important social issues.

Literacy is every child’s right

 

Today is International Literacy Day, a day for communities to celebrate the joys of reading, while raising awareness for those without access to education. But while literacy is a global concern, it’s also an issue that hits close to home— right here in Toronto and York Region.

Consider these troubling statistics from the Canadian Paediatric Society:

  • 50% of adults with low literacy levels live below the poverty line
  • People with low literacy skills are twice as likely to be unemployed
  • Low literacy is a severe and pervasive problem with serious health, social and economic consequences

No one understands this issue better than Camesha Cox, a long-time resident of Toronto’s priority neighbourhood of Kingston Galloway Orton Park (KGO). Over the past five years, approximately 49% of KGO Grade Three children have not met provincial reading standards—a startling statistic since studies show those who experience reading difficulties at this level seldom catch up to their peers.

So, in 2011, Camesha decided to do something about it. She started The Reading Partnership, a small resident-led project supported by United Way, that brings together children and their parents to strengthen reading skills and empower families with the knowledge and tools they need to ensure their children are on a promising educational path.

Watch the video below to learn about another unique school-readiness program offered by United Way-supported Working Women Community Centre that helps newcomer children—and their families—prepare for the Canadian school system.

Why Community Hubs matter

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Laura Harper Manager, Dorset Park Community Hub

Laura Harper
Manager, Dorset Park Community Hub

Earlier this month, the province released Community Hubs in Ontario: A Strategic Framework and Action Plan, which outlines a roadmap for working collaboratively with community partners to create essential social infrastructure in under-served communities. One of United Way’s own Community Hubs was cited in the report as a successful model of building strong communities. Imagine a City spoke with Laura Harper, Senior Manager, Programs and Services, Agincourt Community Services Association, and Hub Manager at United Way’s Dorset Park Community Hub to learn more about these important community resources.

What is a Community Hub?

Working together with donors and community partners, United Way has opened seven Community Hubs throughout our region with an eighth currently in development. These Hubs serve more than one purpose. Although they act as a one-stop shop where people can access vital programs and services all under one roof, they are also places where residents come to build community. In 2005, Toronto identified 13 priority neighbourhoods that are home to some of our most vulnerable residents—many of whom are isolated from crucial social services, supports and infrastructure. Community Hubs bridge these gaps. Although neighbourhoods throughout our communities differ greatly, that’s the common thread between them. Whether a neighbourhood is made up of a high concentration of newcomers, residents living on a low income, single mothers or youth who are not graduating, Community Hubs bring together resources to provide a place that supports the diverse growing needs of a community.

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What services do they offer?

Community Hubs offer a wide breadth of services based on a community’s needs—that’s why the Hub model is so effective. We’re able to work with community leaders and residents to discuss what their vision is for the space. For example, at the Dorset Park Community Hub, we were able to match community partners to the needs of the community to offer food bank access, newcomer settlement supports, early childhood programs and employment resources. We also offer recreational space including a computer lab and community kitchen.

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Why are Community Hubs so important?

Community Hubs are an important part of building stronger neighbourhoods because they involve people who live in the community—and know the issues first-hand—in every stage of the development and ongoing operation. Residents are ingrained in the decision-making process because they want to make their community better. When Dorset Park residents saw that a Community Hub was opening, they felt truly invested. They felt that a funder like United Way believed in them so they took ownership of the space. The Hub represents opportunity for the community—opportunity to have their needs met, cultivate new relationships, discover a sense of empowerment and to become active participants in creating a stronger neighbourhood.

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What role do local residents play in supporting the activities and ongoing operation of the Hubs?

Community Hubs could not thrive without the support of residents. Before the Hubs opened, residents wanted to get engaged in their community, but lacked the infrastructure, mentorship and organization to get community-led initiatives off the ground. They wanted a space where they could come together and start projects of their own.

An example I always highlight is the Women`s English Circle that started when a group of women identified that many newcomers in the community wanted to learn English. Though the program was initially successful, when it moved over to the Dorset Park Community Hub, membership grew exponentially. Now, 80 women actively participate in the program, most of whom were formerly isolated. This resident-led program not only gives women the opportunity to learn English, but more importantly, it’s connecting them with other women in the community. Now, the participants are actively engaging in other resources, have become volunteers and are even running initiatives of their own.

Want to learn more about the vital role Community Hubs play in neighbourhoods across our region? Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn on August 27, 28 and 29 to learn how Community Hubs are hosting free eye exams and bringing glasses to people in under-served communities. The mobile eye clinic is thanks to a unique collaboration between United Way, VSP Vision Care, Buck Consultants and Xerox.

Building futures through Community Benefits

Pedro Barata

Our guest blogger this week is Pedro Barata, Vice President of Communications & Public Affairs at United Way Toronto & York Region. He has experience working within, and across community-based organizations, strategic philanthropy, and various levels of government.

When the Ontario Government passed Bill 6: Infrastructure for Jobs and Prosperity Act, the province opened the door to ensuring that infrastructure planning and investment across the province includes community benefits.

These community benefits mean that we have the opportunity to strengthen communities every time we build infrastructure. It’s historic legislation, and United Way has helped bring this exciting idea to fruition, working alongside a growing movement that includes labour, community groups, agencies, local and provincial government, Metrolinx, foundations and local residents. In particular, we have dedicated ourselves to working with all our partners to create a multi-sector partnership that can more effectively connect residents from priority neighbourhoods with the career opportunities that will emerge from arising new rapid transit expansion.

Sometimes it can be difficult to see the real impact that legislation makes on people’s everyday lives. But for residents in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods, the possibilities of the new legislation are already within sight.

Take the Eglinton Crosstown line, which is being built near five of Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods. Thanks to a new Community Benefits Framework that involves Metrolinx, the provincial government and the community through the Toronto Community Benefits Network, the five-year, 19-kilometre-line will give local residents access to career opportunities. It is one example of how the new Bill 6 legislation can come into action. Recruitment, skills building, training programs and wraparound supports are now being brought together to give new skills to prospective workers and have people ready to help deliver this project on time, on budget and safely.

Community benefits are inspiring change. Bill 6 legislation enshrines community benefits as a smart, sustainable and transformative solution to build our region’s future. What’s new about this bill is that it actually names specific groups that are often left out of opportunities like this—at-risk youth, low-income communities, Aboriginal populations and people with disabilities.

United Way research shows a growing divide in access to opportunities for residents. At the same time, availability of skilled labour has been a constant concern amidst the region’s construction boom. Bill 6 signals a new era of collaboration, bringing the goals of government, labour, not-for-profits and business, closer together.

Toronto’s first-ever anti-poverty plan passes

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Toronto City Council voted overwhelmingly on July 7 to approve the interim report on the city’s poverty reduction strategy: TOProsperity. The plan calls on a collaborative, community-driven strategy to tackle the effects and root causes of poverty. United Way played a key role in the development of this strategy, by helping residents in priority neighbourhoods connect with city staff during the public consultations that took place.

Here are three things you need to know about #TOProsperity moving forward:

1. A final report on the city’s Poverty Reduction Plan will be presented to city councilors in the fall. The plan will outline a roadmap on how the City and its partners will implement the key recommendations contained in the strategy, including short- and long-term targets and a multi-year funding plan.

2. 2035: The deadline set to achieve an equitable city with opportunity for all Torontonians including: access to good jobs, adequate income, stable housing, affordable transportation, nutritious food, and supportive services.

3. United Way will continue to work with community facilitators and residents to engage people with lived experience of poverty in the implementation phase of the strategy.

Residents speak up on poverty reduction

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United Way community facilitator Harriet Cain

The City of Toronto recently released its Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy,which calls on a collaborative, community-driven strategy to end poverty. The City of Toronto partnered with United Way to ensure the strategy was reflective of those voices with lived experience of poverty. Working together, we helped identify 23 community facilitators from priority neighbourhoods and community agencies/groups. We then partnered with the Maytree Foundation to train residents to lead small group discussions aimed at engaging community members in the process. A total of eight, City-led “Days of Dialogue” were held across Toronto earlier this year.  Imagine a City spoke to Harriet Cain, one of United Way’s community facilitators, on why it’s vitally important for residents with lived experience of poverty to add their voice to the conversation.

Tell us a little bit about yourself: I’m originally from Barbados. I moved to Toronto in the late 1980s. I lived in Brampton for a year and then moved to Scarborough. I came here on a work permit from my country and I had high hopes for building a good future. But I didn’t get a lot of help from friends and family when I first got here. Back then there were no Community Hubs and it was hard to access social services. I found it difficult to pay the rent and my work as a cook and personal support worker was never steady. I relied on food banks.

Tell us a little bit about your neighbourhood: I currently live in Taylor Massey, which is considered a priority neighbourhood. It’s a big community, and many times, you cannot walk from one part of the neighbourhood to another without having to go around something. These physical barriers cause us to be isolated from one another. It’s quite dismal and dark in some parts of the neighbourhood. In terms of food, I would call our community a ‘food desert.’ Healthy, fresh food is far away from us. We also find that the grocery stores around here are expensive. We are a very diverse community. We have European, Caribbean and South Asian cultural groups. But many of us are struggling for food, for rent, for jobs and for childcare. It’s very frustrating for the women who have professions and can’t find jobs that utilize their trained credentials. Mental health is also a challenge for many people in our neighbourhood.

How did you become involved in Toronto’s Poverty Reduction consultations? Describe your role as a Community Facilitator. I have been a volunteer with United Way’s Action for Neighborhood Change in Taylor Massey for about seven years. I was really happy when they asked me if I’d be interested in helping to lead small group discussions among residents with lived experience of poverty.  My job was to listen to the others, to make sure they understood and to motivate them to add their voice. I helped keep the dialogue running. I was able to use my own experience of living in poverty to help other residents clarify, and expand on, their own challenges and experiences.

How important was United Way in helping facilitate these discussions? United Way has long-term, well-established relationships with residents and community groups/agencies in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods. They helped the City bring residents to the table to have these important conversations. They helped give us a voice and allowed our voice to get stronger and to get bigger.

 What did you hear from residents at these community consultation sessions? We heard from a wide cross-section of people across Toronto. They’re struggling for food, they’re struggling for rent, they’re struggling to get daycare so that they can go to work. One young woman we heard from had just graduated from college and was frustrated because she couldn’t find a job. She had to give up her apartment and move back home because there was no money coming in. Lots of residents spoke about their struggles accessing healthy, affordable, nutritious food. We also heard a lot about employment. Some residents felt they were being discriminated against because of their postal code even though they had all the credentials for the job. Many of the people we spoke with were employed, but were earning minimum wage. They were working two jobs but still unable to purchase healthy food. They found it very difficult to find extra money to take their children to extracurricular or entertainment activities, even just once a month. Finding money for transit was problematic too.

Why is it so important for resident voices to be included in Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy? People who are impoverished are not ignorant, we understand our needs. That is a big myth that needs to be removed. Even the uneducated person still knows what they need. If we are going to reduce, or end, poverty in our city, it’s vitally important that the people with lived experience of poverty have a say in how the problem gets fixed. You might not be able to give me everything, but to honour and help me, I believe that you need to talk to me. If I needed shoes, for example, you might think I need shoes with heels. But I don’t even like shoes with heels. It’s important to take the time to really understand how I’m going to benefit from your help.

What did it mean to you to be personally involved in these City-led consultations? I was very moved that the City was at the table with the residents. They heard the voices and saw the faces of poverty.  They heard about our struggles, they heard about our frustrations and they heard that residents are eager to do better. They came into our neighbourhoods and let us know that they are here for us. I am hopeful that we can work together to create real change.

TO Prosperity: Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy goes to City Council on July 7 and 8, 2015, for approval. Follow United Way on Twitter and Facebook for updates and use #TOProsperity to join the conversation.

 

A path to neighbourhood empowerment

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James Gen Meers

Our guest blogger this week is James Gen Meers, Executive Director of the Pan Am Path Art Relay. The Art Relay, sponsored in part by United Way Toronto, combines art and sport to create a living path across the city, including some of Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods. The goal of the 3-month project, which will stretch across an 80-kilometre trail, is to celebrate our city’s greatest assets: diversity, nature and arts. It will also help to strengthen priority neighbourhoods across our city by breaking down physical barriers and connecting residents with each other. James has previously served as a Senior Advisor with the Ontario Government and has helped produce more than 100 citizen “talk salons” in his role as progressive community builder.

Under a highway underpass is a freshly painted mural created by a Toronto street artist. It’s one of numerous murals that are springing up in parks and on underpasses this summer along the Pan Am Path—an 84-kilometre continuous trail for walking, running, cycling and wheeling that connects the city from east to west.

The works are part of the Pan Am Path Art Relay, a series of unique art installations and festivals travelling across Toronto that celebrate some of the city’s greatest assets: diversity, nature, arts and active outdoor living.

The Art Relay was started by a group of Toronto artists and city-builders in collaboration with the City of Toronto. It is organized by the Friends of the Pan Am Path and receives funding from the City and numerous organizations, including United Way Toronto. The Path travels through many of the 13 priority neighbourhoods where United Way is targeting efforts to meet the urgent needs of residents living in poverty and build stronger communities.

These city-wide installations and festivals are about much more than just beautiful artwork. The Art Relay helps improve physical infrastructure to link parkland across neighbourhoods in Toronto’s inner suburbs. By breaking down physical barriers, Pan Am Path is helping to connect priority neighbourhoods across our city, encouraging residents to enjoy their natural backyards through arts, music, cycling and running or walking.  It’s another way United Way Toronto is working with dedicated and passionate city builders to re-imagine our city for our residents.

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The “Album” Mural

Artist Tristan R. Whiston, along with partner Anna Camilleri, is responsible for a mural called “Album” under the Dundas Street W. bridge near Lambton House. Tristan says he often encounters people enjoying nature and art on the Path. “Every day as I’m working on this mural, people are stopping me and I am spreading the story and the meaning behind this artwork,” he says. “This Art Relay gets us out of our houses and onto this beautiful path.”

Further along the western tip of the Path, a small community group called Freedom Fridayz recently celebrated their fifth anniversary with a day-long festival that included painting, dance, song and poetry. The group formed to provide a platform for Jane –Finch community members to both showcase and celebrate their skills, talents and knowledge. United Way Toronto and its partners, including the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre played a key role in bringing residents out to celebrate another milestone in improving their local neighborhood.

For more information about the Pan Am Path, the Art Relay and upcoming events, follow United Way on TwitterFacebook and Instagram using #ArtRelay. You can also visit panampath.org.

 

 

 

 

 

Sowing the seeds of employment through social enterprise

Mark-Cullen-Head-Shot_606x544Our guest blogger this week is Mark Cullen, Canada’s best known gardener. Mark connects with more than 2 million Canadians each week through his weekly gardening segment on CTV and his numerous books and online postings. He’s passionate about helping Canadians grow organic, healthy produce—and with his well-known sense of social responsibility—Mark actively participates in local, provincial and international developmental and educational programs. He is a volunteer spokesperson for SHARE Agricultural FoundationCanada Blooms Flower and Garden Festival, and the Composting Council of Canada. He is also a long-time friend and supporter of United Way Toronto & York Region. This includes the Toronto Enterprise Fund (TEF), a partnership between United Way and all levels of government that funds social enterprises providing individuals facing barriers with training and work opportunities. The following article, which has been edited and condensed, originally appeared on April 18, 2015, in the Toronto Star.

As I strolled into the boardroom, a stranger to this place and its people, I had no idea that the person who sat across from me had been living with serious challenges for many years.  Mental illness is like that.

Outwardly there are often no signs of the struggles in one’s past.  The evidence of a history of disabilities lies buried.  The symptoms are often clear enough: homelessness, joblessness, and, sometimes an inability to get up in the morning or to face another human being that day.

All I knew for sure was that I had been asked to join a meeting of professional gardeners. These people tend plants for a living and, at some point in their past, most of them were seen as unemployable but now work in a business that was born in the world of social enterprise.

I know something about running a business, as I have been doing it for a few decades.  But ‘social enterprise’?  That was a new one to me.

By definition, a company that employs marginalized people and is supported by a not-for-profit funding partner like United Way is called a social enterprise.  United Way’s TEF annual report explains, “TEF funds enterprises that connect people facing employment barriers with job training and work opportunities. Since its inception in 2000 TEF has funded 45 social enterprises, which have collectively employed and/or trained over 2,500 people. Currently we provide operating grants to a portfolio of 15 enterprises and seed funding to two.”

It was the good people at United Way Toronto & York Region who first introduced me to the idea a couple of years ago.  As I learned more about the concept, I offered the benefit of my business experience to them and they asked me to meet ad-hoc with Parkdale Green Thumb Enterprises (PGTE), a landscape maintenance company in the west end of the city.

Maggie Griffin has been responsible for running PGTE for over 11 years.  While she manages a business and deals with the usual challenges of dealing with suppliers, customer relations, and government interventions, her life is complicated by the fact that she employs people considered unemployable by many.  Imagine hiring a staff that consists of people who are at risk of homelessness, have struggled with living in poverty, addiction issues and/or mental illness.  Strike that suggestion, it is impossible for most of us to imagine it.

I like PGTE for a few reasons.

First, social enterprise just makes sense.  As Maggie says, “What people really want is a home, a job, and a friend.” Working in an environment that respects your human-hood can give you dignity that is hard to find in the hard scrabble, competitive world of “business as usual.”

Secondly, PGTE engages people in paid positions where they can experience the miracle of the healing power of plants while on payroll.  As one employee who did not want to be identified said, “The social aspect of Parkdale Green Thumb gave me the courage to apply for the job. Starting back to work was the single greatest leap forward toward living a full life again.  I was exercising, socializing and feeling productive. With each day I gained more confidence.  This has led to other employment, new friends, and a plan for the future.”

Today PGTE specialises in the installation and maintenance of plantings in business improvement areas around the west-centre core of the city.  They do not own a truck or cars for transportation so employees travel by TTC.  Last year they spent just over $6,000 on fares to get their people around to various jobs.  Knowing how much it costs to run a car for a year, this sounds like a good investment to me.

Should you be sitting on a street car someday when a couple of people wander on with hedge shears and a watering can in hand, you just might be witness to the Green Thumb work in progress.

What is the precarity penalty?

Our guest blogger is Dr. Wayne Lewchuk, co-author of The Precarity Penalty: The impact of employment precarity on individuals, households and communities―and what to do about it. Wayne is also a professor at McMaster University’s School of Labour Studies and Department of Economics.

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The Precarity Penalty

Today, PEPSO, a research partnership between United Way Toronto and McMaster University releases its new report, The Precarity Penalty: The impact of employment precarity on individuals, households and communities―and what to do about it. The Precarity Penalty examines the social and economic effects of short-term and insecure employment. It asks, what are the challenges facing workers in short-term employment in terms of getting ahead, establishing healthy households and participating in community life. The findings are troubling.

Uncertain future employment prospects can increase anxiety at home.  Lack of benefits can make even small unexpected medical costs a crisis.  Unpredictable work schedules can make finding suitable childcare very difficult.  The short-term nature of the employment relationship can limit a worker’s access to the training needed to get ahead. Together, the added challenges associated with insecure employment represent The Precarity Penalty.

In short, precarious employment not only creates significant stress on individuals and families today, it also creates conditions that can trap those who are in precarious employment from opportunities to get ahead.

Given that insecure employment is the fastest growing form of employment, we should all be concerned about what this means for our families, our children and our communities.

A new body of research (see references below), much of it focused on the troubles in the U.S. economy, suggests that public policy has fallen short, and at times exacerbated the challenges facing precarious workers. These policies have exposed workers to more economic uncertainty, reduced supports that help build healthy families and made it more difficult than in the past for workers to negotiate improved working conditions. There is evidence that Canada’s own public policy environment has not fared much better in terms of protecting vulnerable workers.

What policy has enabled, policy can change.  It is not inevitable that a growing number of Canadian workers find themselves in relationships that make it difficult to get ahead. The mechanisms we use to regulate labour markets, including how contracts are negotiated, how we set and enforce employment standards, how we support workers between jobs, how quality training is provided, and how workers can finance unexpected health costs and old age were all formed when permanent full-time employment was the norm.

We need to revisit these mechanisms in light of the spread of less secure employment and ensure that our public policies match the realities facing Canadians today.

Other countries have accepted this challenge. Canada can do the same.

REFERENCES

David Weil, The Fissured Workplace

Lawrence Mishel, The State of Working America

Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality

 

 

Calling on the community for mental health support

May 4-10 is Mental Health Week. An opportunity to learn, talk, reflect and engage Canadians on issues related to mental illness.

Research tells us that one in five Canadians will be affected by mental illness each year. We also know that as many as one in three individuals who experienced mental health challenges in the past year were not able to access the support they needed.

The community plays a vital role in supporting individuals with mental health challenges, including frontline, crisis intervention support.

Bell—a workplace leader in mental health awareness, care, access and research—invests in United Way agencies across the country providing frontline crisis intervention services. This investment speaks to the increasing interest in ensuring that critical and immediate supports are in place for people facing mental illness.

For example, Distress Centres, one of United Way’s funded agencies, offers a year-round, 24-7 crisis support telephone line that answers more than 80,000 calls each year. “We are a point-of-first-access for people who are considering suicide or experiencing a mental health crisis,” says Karen Letofskty, the agency’s executive director. “There’s universal access on the phone. If you’re home and you’re feeling immobilized, or if you have financial or transportation issues, you call can us. There’s no fee for service and you can choose to remain anonymous.”

The agency also works with its numerous community partners to provide referrals, offer phone-based support to vulnerable seniors, conduct community education sessions and provide in-person counselling to families who have experienced the loss of a loved one by suicide or homicide.

Frontline, community-based support for at-risk groups— including newcomers and youth—is also of vital importance. Canada’s youth suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world and stigma prevents many young people from seeking the support they need.

YouthLink, a United Way agency that offers a weekly, walk-in counselling service for individuals aged 12 to 21, offers the crucial mental health support young people need, right when they need it—no waitlists, no appointments, and no fees required. Watch one young man’s inspirational story on his journey from struggling with severe depression to receiving the life-changing support he needed.

“It takes a community to support an individual experiencing emotional difficulty in a crisis,” says Letofsky. “That person is best served when we work together in a coordinated way to ensure that there’s a continuum of service, whether it’s during an acute time or a treatment phase. We all need to be sitting around the table and working together in support of that individual.”

Planning for change in Tower neighbourhoods

Jennifer-Keesmat_606x544As the City of Toronto’s Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat is committed to creating places where people flourish.  Over the past decade, she has been recognized by the Canadian Institute of Planners and OPPI for her innovative work in Canadian municipalities.  Most recently, Jennifer was named as one of the most influential people in Toronto by Toronto Life magazine and one of the most powerful people in Canada by Maclean’s magazine. Her planning practice is characterized by an emphasis on collaborations across sectors, and broad engagement with municipal staff, councils, developers, business leaders, NGOs and residents’ associations.  Jennifer is also a member of United Way Toronto’s  2015 Campaign Cabinet. Imagine a City spoke to Jennifer on why community consultation is key to building more livable neighbourhoods.

One of your key priorities as Chief Planner is to make neighbourhoods across Toronto more livable. What does this mean exactly? Livable communities are complete communities. They’re neighbourhoods where you can undertake many activities, and access most services, within walking distance from home. Things like work, childcare, doctors’ offices, food shops, community centres and playgrounds.  In order for neighbourhoods to be safe and to thrive, they need lots of diversity. They need diversity in terms of ages groups, in terms of uses and in terms of how you can move and walk around.

We know that livability in our city’s inner-suburban “Tower Neighbourhoods” is a serious challenge. Toronto contains the second largest concentration of high-rise buildings in North America. Today there are more than 1,000 of these concrete towers across our inner suburbs. When they were designed in the 1950s primarily for the middle class, they were designed for one “use” only—housing.  Tower Neighbourhoods weren’t planned to be diverse. You couldn’t go to the doctor, you couldn’t buy groceries, you couldn’t go to a restaurant. They quickly became less desirable places to live than other vibrant urban centres. They weren’t well-connected in terms of their pedestrian access and they weren’t connected to transit. These communities were subsequently abandoned by the middle class and became landing pads for new immigrants, many living in poverty.

United Way’s Tower Neighbourhood Renewal strategy aims to improve quality of life for residents in these high-rise communities. An important part of this strategy is consulting with residents who live there and engaging them in the planning process. We consult with thousands of residents in this city every year. But one of the things we’ve discovered is that the participants in our planning process are generally white, middle-class homeowners. Last year, as a result of collaborations with a variety of different partners, including United Way Toronto, we were able to bring in voices from Tower neighbourhoods that desperately needed to be at the table: voices from immigrants, voices from marginalized residents, voices from people struggling with poverty, voices from people that don’t have English as a first language and voices from people who are more reliant on social services in our city. These are the people that typically have a really hard time accessing our processes in the first place. United Way has worked very hard to build trust and relationships within the communities that we would like to better engage in our planning processes. They’ve helped us to understand the poverty that exists in this city and the need to work more intensively in the Tower Neighbourhoods.  Broadening participation in our city building processes underpins creating an equitable city for all Torontonians.

What was the outcome of this community consultation? As a result of tremendous on-going analysis and new collaborations that have involved United Way Toronto, Public Health and the Tower Renewal Office—to name just a few of the players—approximately 500 existing apartment sites in Toronto’s inner suburbs have been identified for inclusion in a new zone—the Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) Zone. Zoning is essentially the regulations and laws that we have in City Planning that determine which uses—commercial, residential, etc.—can go where. The RAC Zone bylaw loosens up what types of uses are permitted in these Tower communities. For example, it will allow small shops, food markets, cafes, learning centres, barbershops, doctor’s offices, community centres and places of worship that are of benefit to local residents. This is a key step towards creating more complete, livable, walkable communities in Toronto’s Tower neighbourhoods.

Talk about some of the other ways you’re engaging Torontonians in the city planning process? We are broadening participation in City Planning with the goal of making Toronto the most engaged city in North America—at least where planning is concerned. We’re beginning to see social media as an essential tool for communicating engagement opportunities with the public and for people who might not otherwise feel comfortable participating in a community meeting due to physical, financial, family or work constraints. As part of our extensive Eglinton Connects study, for example, 25% of participants heard of the opportunity to participate through social media. We’ve also been working with the City Manager’s Office to pilot IdeaSpaceTO, which is a social media tool that facilitates a high-quality online discussion between residents and the City.

 

Why employee volunteerism works

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Deloitte’s Leila Fenc

April 12-18 is National Volunteer Week. An opportunity to recognize and celebrate the nearly 13 million Canadians who offer their time, talent and expertise as volunteers each year. According to a Statistics Canada survey on Giving, Volunteering and Participating, Canadians contributed close to 2 billion volunteer hours in 2013. Imagine a City spoke with Deloitte’s Leila Fenc, Director of Corporate Responsibility and Deloitte Foundation, on why employee-supported volunteering (ESV) is on the rise and how community-minded companies can leverage the skills and interests of their employees when it comes to giving back.

Tell us a little bit more about employer-supported volunteering (ESV): It can take a  number of different forms. But essentially, it’s a firm or company supporting its employees in some way to go out and volunteer in the community. ESV can be anything from painting and planting at a community agency to offering knowledge-based services including management consulting, human resources advice or fundraising strategy to a not-for-profit. At Deloitte, we probably do about 15 to 20 knowledge-based projects like this a year. We also host a single day of volunteer service called “Impact Day” where we shut down our offices across the country and about 80% of our people go out into the community to volunteer, many at United Way agencies.

According to Statistics Canada, overall volunteer rates are down by nearly half-a-million since 2010. However, ESV is on the rise. Why? People lead increasingly busy lives and there are multiple demands on individuals’ time. Employer-supported volunteering helps facilitate giving back to the community by offering the tools, networks and time required to volunteer. At Deloitte, we also provide opportunities for families to volunteer together, which enables them to spend quality time while giving back. Millenials are also demanding these types of opportunities—and organizations want to make sure they’re offering them. Young people, including United Way GenNexters, are passionate about getting involved actively in their communities and finding those leadership opportunities. They want to take ownership of life beyond the workplace.

Why is workplace volunteerism so important to corporate culture? The opportunity for colleagues to volunteer side-by-side in a different environment with people who might not be part of a person’s everyday career group builds relationships and strengthens cohesion within organizations. Workplaces are more productive when there is a greater sense of belonging. At Deloitte, we have a strong focus on inclusion. By allowing people to bring their personal interests into the workplace through volunteering, it fosters that sense of belonging.

Why is ESV important to individual achievement? The relationships and the networks that employees build through volunteerism can greatly support their career. It can also showcase skills they might not otherwise be able to demonstrate during their day-to-day job. Also, volunteering for a non-profit allows our people a glimpse into a world that maybe they hadn’t thought about. We’ve seen in a number of instances our employees become personally committed to organizations they’ve spent the day with. They continue to volunteer and provide service or even join a non-profit board. It sparks something new in them.

How do communities benefit when employees give back through the workplace? Deloitte has nearly 8,000 employees and 57 offices across Canada. Employee volunteerism, especially in some of our smaller centres, builds that sense of connection to the community in a more intimate way. It really allows our people to participate directly in their community and to feel like they are having a direct impact.

Any predictions for the future of workplace volunteering? People are looking for more flexible experiences. It’s just the way the workforce is going. I would expect volunteering opportunities to keep pace with that trend and to allow people the flexibility to engage when it suits their life. A lot of organizations are also experimenting with micro-volunteering, or the ability to commit smaller chunks of time—maybe two or four hours—sometimes online or over the phone. I also think we’re going to see a rise in skills-based volunteering.

 

 

 

 

Why civic engagement matters

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Our guest blogger is Tina Edan, a member of The Maytree Foundation’s communications team. Tina has worked on leadership, storytelling and advocacy initiatives in the non-profit sector for more than 15 years.  

We talk a lot about resident and civic engagement. But what does it really mean? And why is it so important to building a stronger, united city?

We know from our research that people are healthier when they feel like part of a community and when they can count on family, friends and neighbours for support.

They’re also more likely to stay and raise their family in a neighbourhood where they have strong social connections to the people who live there.

Vibrant communities are built from the ground up. This means engaging and enabling the people who live in these communities—big and small— to enact the changes they want to see. Changes they know will help other residents, and entire neighbourhoods, thrive.

The best part about resident and civic engagement? No project or initiative is too small. Sewing clubs. Little free libraries. Community gardens.  All have the power to bring residents together, encourage local leadership, cultivate creativity and strengthen neighbourhoods.

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Another example?  The Toronto Youth Summit, hosted in partnership with United Way Toronto on March 21 and 22, which asked our city’s young people how they would create possibility for youth in Toronto. To read some of their inspiring ideas, click here.

 

 

Need some more suggestions on how to get engaged with your city? How to transform ideas into action? Here’s a sampling of civic engagement initiatives and activities across Toronto—and Canada:

  • What better way to generate new ideas than over a meal? In October 2014, through 1000 Dinners TO, 1,000 people hosted dinners for up to 10 people across the city. They discussed how to make Toronto an even better place.
  • We Are Cities is a national campaign that engages Canadians to shape a vision and action plan for building cities that are exciting and healthy places to live, work and play.
  • These days, if it’s an idea worth following, it has a hashtag. #2forTO is a campaign initiated by Metro Morning to activate civic engagement in our city through small, achievable commitments from creating street libraries to picking up litter.
  • If you’re looking for a menu of opportunities to share, discuss and create the future of Toronto, you’ll want to check out Shape My City, a platform that aggregates ideas from people across the city on how to improve life in Toronto.
  • And finally…there’s 100in1Day, a city-wide civic engagement festival co-presented by United Way Toronto and Evergreen. On June 6, 2015, you can join thousands of Torontonians as they engage in small-scale events—everything from taking over parking spots to planting gardens—that result in stronger, more connected and resilient communities.

Through connection we can cultivate ideas; through action we can make change. And today, we have more opportunities to engage than ever.