A community response to COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on Toronto.com.


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

How to become a mentor

Candace was seven when she met Marion. Her mom, a single parent, worked full-time and figured Candace and her two younger sisters could benefit from having another role model around. But Marion, who was a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, would eventually become more than a mentor; she’d become a lifelong friend.

“I don’t remember having too many hesitations about having a Big Sister,” Candace wrote in a blog post on the Big Brothers Big Sisters website. “Marion welcomed me into her life with open arms. There was almost an immediate level of comfort with us.”

There’s no question that kids benefit from mentorship. Young people need role models and someone they can count on, and mentors can provide friendship, a listening ear and kindness. But because the stakes feel so high, potential mentors are often unsure if they have what it takes.

It is a big commitment, says Allison Haskins, volunteer coordinator at Big Brothers Big Sisters of York, a United Way–supported agency. But potential mentors receive plenty of support. Haskins is there for every step of the application process, answering questions and making sure each candidate is suitable.

“Mentorship is all about being a positive role model and friend. Modelling good character traits and following through on the commitment are key,” she explains. “There’s no expectation to be or do anything other than that.”

At Big Brothers Big Sisters, mentors go through a comprehensive screening process that includes an interview, reference check, police vulnerable sector screening and interview before they’re matched with children. Mentors can request a particular age group (Big Brothers Big Sisters serves kids aged six to 18) and can choose a volunteer program that best suits their schedule. In one-on-one community-based programs, mentors spend three to four hours every week or every other week with their mentee, doing things like going to the park, playing video games or hanging out at the library. There are also one-on-one school programs, in which mentors can spend one lunch hour a week playing sports, crafting or reading. And finally, volunteers can sign up for group programming. Big Brothers Big Sisters plans the activities for these group sessions, which require an hour or two a week. Volunteers are expected to commit to at least one year, but many continue volunteering beyond that—and often, volunteers in the one-on-one programs remain friends with their mentees for life.

The growth seen in children with mentors is tremendous and can have lifelong benefits for them. Their behaviour improves in school and at home, they build positive character traits of their own, and they share their growth with family, friends and classmates. Their school work improves, and they tend to stay in school longer. Mentees also set goals and make better life choices. “There is an awesome ripple effect in the community,” says Haskins. “Children thrive with positive mentors!”

But the value to the mentor can be just as profound.

“There’s huge and incredible opportunity for growth as a human being when you act as a mentor,” she says. “Volunteers have a fantastic opportunity to gain experience and build character, sound judgment and personal discipline. Mentoring brings about personal fulfillment, and a great sense of pride and accomplishment. It is a great boost to one’s self-confidence.”

The decision to become a mentor shouldn’t be taken lightly, but the benefits to both mentor and mentee are worth it. Just ask Candace—after experiencing the ways in which having a Big Sister changed her life, she recently became a Big Sister herself. She’s excited to make a difference in a child’s life and share memories that will last a lifetime.

Learn more about how to become a mentor on the Big Brothers Big Sisters website, where you can connect with a local chapter or talk to a staff member about other volunteer opportunities.

Discovering the “unsung heroes” of our community

Raksha M. Bhayana

We often talk about the importance of a strong social safety net, or a circle of care that surrounds all of us—ensuring everyone has the help they need, when they need it and where they live. It’s this web of social supports, things like newcomer language services, mental health programs and employment resources, that help people build better lives. But behind these services and supports are the people who work tirelessly and passionately every day to make a difference in the lives of others. We spoke to Raksha M. Bhayana, a former United Way board member and champion of these frontline agency workers and staff to help us understand why these “unsung heroes” should be recognized and celebrated.

1. You started your own career in social services before moving to the corporate sector to join your family business. Tell us a bit about your experience.

I have a Master’s degree in social work, and I was one of those idealistic Boomers who wanted to change the world. I especially wanted to help youth have more opportunities. My last position was at Family Services Toronto. I was responsible for directing all of the agency’s programs, which included supports for women experiencing violence, adults and couple counselling, seniors’ wellness and support programs, case management for individuals with developmental disabilities. I was also responsible for government relations and designing new programs based on emerging needs. Before Family Services, I was at a children’s mental health centre, where I was director of the Child and Family Clinic.

2. What do you think motivates agency and community services staff, who you’ve said are often the “unsung heroes” of the sector, to do the important work that they do?

The motivation is primarily intrinsic. They care, and are driven by their passion and ideals. The have the skills, the expertise and creativity to help people make changes. They help people improve their quality of life and their sense of well-being. I think there’s tremendous satisfaction in watching people change, and being a part of bringing that change about.

3. Working in the social services sector can be incredibly rewarding—but also challenging. Describe some of these challenges?

I think one of the biggest challenges is the increasing demand for support. There are always waiting lists from people seeking help. You can get a call from a woman being assaulted by her partner, a suicidal single parent—I’ve been through all of these scenarios. Every day is different. One day you might hear from an isolated senior who needs support or from a young person who has just left home and needs help. These can be very emotionally challenging situations to deal with. In many cases, we are also faced with limited resources, so you have to use a lot of ingenuity and creativity to get people the help they need. These are pretty special people to be able to deal with this kind of pressure.

4. The Bhayana Family Foundation Awards shines a light on the vital contributions of United Way agency staff who help fuel change across our communities. Why is this recognition so important?

The frontline staff talk about United Way/ Bhayana awards as the “Academy Awards” of the social services sector. When we started these awards more than nine years ago, we wanted to raise the profile of the entire social services sector, including the frontline workers who are such a big part of making change happen. We also wanted to raise awareness amongst the broader public for the incredible, and often challenging, work they do to support people and families in need. This is a sector, that as a whole, contributes economically and socially to society, yet has traditionally received little recognition for the work they do, compared to the private sector. We know this recognition is important because the research suggests there is a positive correlation between employee recognition and enhanced engagement, and performance of staff. When we celebrate these frontline workers and make them feel special and valued, we raise the bar of performance for the entire non-profit sector.