Celebrating the frontline workers supporting community in Peel and York

With our community’s most vulnerable disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, frontline workers at United Way agencies are redoubling their efforts to ensure that no one gets left behind during this crisis.  

United Way Greater Toronto is proud to join the Region of Peel and the Regional Municipality of York to celebrate the inspiring community workers stepping up to meet emergency needs in Peel and York – and keeping vital programs going so everyone has the social supports they need, close to home.  

Community workers have been on the frontlines of responding to emergency needs during the pandemic, from delivering food and essentials to local families, to finding safe shelter for those who need, it to finding innovative ways to engage youth when in-person programming was put on hold. 

This week, UWGT, Region of Peel, and the Regional Municipality of York are recognizing the invaluable work being done across both regions to support all our neighbours in Peel and York, sharing the stories of some of the many frontline heroes going above and beyond during this unprecedented community crisis, including: 

Peel Region

Gerald Adad, neighbourhood services manager, and youth services manager Lauren Kinne are meeting COVID-19 challenges head-on at Safe City Mississauga, building an online crime prevention management system and mobile app to deliver programs virtually. We want our communities to be able to rely on each other as neighbours,” Gerald notes. “A united community is a safe community.” 

Deborah Kühnen was such a dedicated volunteer with Eden Food for Change for over a decade that the organization asked her to manage the EFFC food bank, where she’s now overseeing its transition from a grocery-shopping model to a hamper-based program. “Our goal is to provide good food to our members in a dignified manner,” Deborah says. 

Shari Harris, project facilitator at Newcomer Centre of Peel’s Bridging Generations program, usually holds culturally relevant workshops for parents and kids in person, but during the pandemic, she’s helping to address urgent needs through videos and webinars, and also ensuring families are informed about the latest COVID-19 health protocols. “Healthy families are what healthy communities are made of,” she says, “and incremental changes have the potential to make a monumental difference.” 

Melodie Telfer, youth mentor and volunteer coordinator at The DAM (Develop Assist Mentor) in Mississauga, is ensuring her young mentees feel supported amid the COVID-19 pandemic, developing engaging videos and online art classes during lockdown, and now also organizing some outdoor visits – complete with their favourite snacks.  

Kaylia Watkis, lead instructor at March of Dimes’ LIFE Mississauga program, develops programming for participants with disabilities who are transitioning to independent adulthood. During the pandemic, she’s been engaging them online via fun activities – like a virtual dance party. “They were so happy to see one another and dance, sing and express themselves,” Kaylia explains. “If they felt better, then that was all that mattered.” 

York Region

(Left to right – Rhona Mackay, Amanda Freer, & Sabrina Green)

At Blue Door shelter Porter Place (the only emergency shelter for men in York Region), residential counsellors Sabrina Green and Rhona Mackay and client services supervisor Amanda Freer are on the frontlines of ensuring safe shelter during COVID-19 for men experiencing or at risk of homelessness. “Having a home to safely ride out this storm is something everyone deserves,” Amanda says. (Left to right – Rhona Mackay, Amanda Freer, & Sabrina Green) 

Ryan Ebuna and Karen Webster, infection prevention and control nurses who work as client care supervisors at Community Home Assistance to Seniors (CHATS), are on the frontlines of ensuring the health of vulnerable seniors is protected during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing education and support to CHATS staff and clients. During the first two months of the pandemic, the pair worked a combined 46 additional workdays above their usual schedule in order to make themselves available around the clock. As their colleagues say: “Calm, caring, knowledgeable, patient and always accessible, Ryan and Karen have been our COVID-19 ‘dynamic duo.’” 

(Left to right: Priscilla Joshi, Varenya Kuhathaas & Deepshikha Swaroop)

Family Services York Region’s Families and Schools Together (FAST) team found themselves shifting gears from running an evening drop-in program to coordinating and delivering food and care packages to newcomer families since lockdown began in March. FAST program manager Varenya Kuhathaas, administrative assistant Deepshikha Swaroop, recreation partner Priscilla Joshi, along with parent partners and translators Poopeh Aravandi and Nishtiman Mokri, have been the driving force behind FSYR’s initiative to ensure families from the Yazidi, Persian, and Syrian communities served by FSYR had the groceries, cleaning products, and kids’ games, craft items and school supplies they needed to get through the pandemic. (Left to right: Priscilla Joshi, Varenya Kuhathaas & Deepshikha Swaroop) 

Anna Foglia, frontline services worker at Women’s Centre of York Region, and her colleagues are working “creatively and tirelessly” to continue offering programs and counselling to help women facing barriers reach their true potential. Their mandate has become even more important amid COVID-19, which has had a disproportionate impact on women in many ways – including an increase in domestic violence cases in York Region since the start of the pandemic. “The need for the programs, services and counselling that WCYR provides has always been great – but even more during this time,” Anna points out. 

Nikki Hanson, reintegration worker at John Howard Society of York Region, ensures those impacted by the criminal justice system can access the housing, food and financial supports they need to get through the COVID-19 crisis. “During the pandemic, I worked hard to help individuals gain access to basic needs, while also lending an ear – letting people know that there is someone out there who cares,” Nikki says. “Building relationships with my community is something that will always be important to me.” 

Steve O’Hearn, former team lead with 360 Kids’ emergency housing program, worked with at-risk and homeless youth aged 16 to 26, supporting them through challenging times to meet their goals – “regardless of how big or small they might be,” he says. During the pandemic, Steve collaborated with other York Region agencies to find solutions to shared challenges and also coordinated COVID-19 testing for youth. 

To celebrate the vital work being done to support people during the pandemic, United Way Greater Toronto, Region of Peel, and the Regional Municipality of York are profiling these remarkable frontline workers making a difference in their communities on all three organizations’ social media channels all this week. Follow UWGT on all our channels @UWGreaterTO. 

As the largest investor in social services next to government, United Way supports a vital network of 270 agencies across Peel, Toronto, and York Region – and the frontline community workers at those agencies helped United Way provide 2.3 million services last year. 

Donate now to help sustain the social safety net that provides hundreds of thousands of people across the GTA with much-needed support. Your support helps us ensure that everyone has the support they need to thrive – now, and long after the current crisis has passed.