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.


SUPPORT UNITED WAY’S LOCAL LOVE FUND

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


A recipe for local change in Peel

What if we could re-imagine the way we address hunger in local communities?

A unique pilot project between United Way and the General Mills Foundation in Peel Region is hoping to do exactly that by moving beyond the typical model of food distribution to a more collaborative, community-led approach.

It’s an initiative that comes as the number of people visiting food banks is increasing, rather than decreasing in Peel Region. For example, The Mississauga Food Bank reported an 18 per cent increase in the number of residents accessing their network of food banks and meal programs in 2018.

Access to food is a human right

Where you live shouldn’t determine your access to healthy, nourishing and culturally-appropriate food. But in Peel Region (and across the GTA) financial constraints can prevent our friend and neighbours from accessing the food they need. This has potential immediate and long-term impacts to their physical and mental health and well-being, as well as having a host of other interrelated effects.

Without nourishing food, kids can’t concentrate in school. Adults go to work hungry. And families have to make agonizing choices about keeping the lights on or putting food on the table.

“Access to appropriate, healthy, life-giving food is a universal right,” says Ruth Crammond, United Way Greater Toronto’s Vice President, Community Investment and Development. “But in Peel Region, thousands of people still go without food. It’s a shocking reality in a region as prosperous as the GTA.”

Taking a local approach to food insecurity

While food banks and meal programs have an important role to play when it comes to addressing food insecurity, there’s a lot more to “feeding the hungry” than meeting immediate need.

“Food security is both an immediate and a systemic issue,” explains Crammond. “It’s inextricably linked to poverty and, like poverty, it looks very different from one community to the next.” 

Effectively tackling hunger at a local level means understanding what it looks like and where it exists. In Peel Region, for example, hunger can be hard to see.

“You might see a family of four at the grocery store and they’re buying groceries, ” says Dale Storey, President and Managing Director, General Mills Canada Corporation, “but when they get back to their apartment they can’t take their winter jackets off because they needed to make a trade off between heat and food.”

When you can’t afford a car, or the neighbourhood you live in isn’t well connected to public transit, it can be difficult to even get to a grocery store. For newcomers with limited income or language barriers, it can be hard to ask for help. Newcomers often find themselves in a very different food environment than they are accustomed to and may struggle to make healthy choices because they are unfamiliar with staples supplied by food banks or don’t know how to cook with them.

Following on the footsteps of a similar, and promising, initiative in Greater Twin Cities, United Way Greater Toronto is partnering with the General Mills Foundation to re-imagine local solutions to hunger.

“At General Mills, we believe in the power of food as a force for good in our communities. We are proud to work together with our long-time partners at United Way Greater Toronto to ensure everyone in our hometown community of Mississauga has affordable and reliable access to the food they need and prefer in order to thrive,” says Mary Jane Melendez, President of the General Mills Foundation and Chief Sustainability & Social Impact Officer.

A generous $1-million gift from General Mills is being invested in a number of community food systems grants that will connect residents living in poverty in Mississauga, Ont., with nutritious, culturally appropriate and affordable food. The programs will focus on community education as well as increasing access to food for community agencies, residents and partners across the food system.

Reflecting local demographics and needs

By working together at a “community systems” level, and taking into account local demographics and needs, the following United Way-supported projects are hoping to transform the way we treat hunger.

  • Ecosource’s Deep Roots program connects residents who experience barriers to food access with a network of ten community gardens across Mississauga, which are tailored to local needs.
  • WellFort Community Health Services, on behalf of the Peel Food Action Council, is co-ordinating action to identify local food issues, learn about the local food environment and map out actions to improve and address food access and security.

Not just a pipe dream

Taking a community-led approach is essential to both immediate and long-term, sustainable solutions to hunger.

“We believe achieving food security in Mississauga is possible through enhanced co-operation and innovation across all players in the food system,” says Britt McKee, Executive Director at Ecosource, one of the United Way Greater Toronto agencies that is funded by the General Mills investment.

“It is our collective responsibility to work together to address the complex barriers to food access residents face” explains McKee. “Our goal is to implement creative and culturally-appropriate solutions that are specific to Mississauga.”

While solutions won’t happen overnight, it’s this kind of micro, local change that will help meet immediate need and will provide the blueprint for tackling hunger across a wider geographical footprint. 

How to get involved:

  • Subscribe to Imagine A City where we’ll bring you updates on this project, including successes, challenges and learnings along the way.

Ask the Expert: How financial empowerment helps women escaping domestic abuse

This article originally appeared on LocalLove.ca—a digital magazine powered by United Way—on October 23, 2019. It has been edited and condensed for length.

Domestic violence is an #UNIGNORABLE issue faced by too many women in our community. Women trying to escape abuse can often become vulnerable to poverty and homelessness, which can make it harder for them to leave an abusive partner. One of the ways United Way agencies support women fleeing violence is by helping them to regain their financial well-being. We asked economist Samra Zafar, who wrote about her own experience leaving an abusive marriage in her bestselling memoir A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose, why supporting women to become economically independent is so important. Here the founder of Brave Beginnings ­explains how financial empowerment can help women experiencing and fleeing abuse.

What are some of the key things survivors need to achieve financial autonomy?

Number one is education. I know I could have left my marriage a lot sooner with a post-secondary education. I didn’t even have a high school certificate when I got married.

And having your own stream of income, where you can make decisions on how to spend it is extra important. It’s OK to be working together in a marriage and contributing to household expenses, but you need your own nest egg or source of income to maintain some independence.

It’s also good to have a financial planner or advisor who will help you think about future goals for yourself and your family. A planner can help women get a will and investments in place, for long-term security on a solo income.

Your organization, Brave Beginnings, supports survivors of abuse and oppression. What day-to-day money skills do you teach there?

Budgeting, because sometimes, in an abusive marriage, women have not had the experience of running a household budget. Financial control is one of the main types of control abusers use to keep them trapped.

I budget like crazy. Knowing what your income is and operating within that is so important, if you want to thrive. It’s so easy, when you’re a parent and your kids are pulling on your heartstrings, to feel pressure to spend more than you have, but you have to have your priorities and your goals.

How else might an abusive partner exert financial control and how do you advise women to protect themselves?

My husband was maxing out our credit card and making me sign joint loans with him. I actually had to sign a consumer proposal the year before leaving him. When I left him, I was in such dire circumstances: I was on OSAP [Ontario Student Assistance Program] and welfare, and I couldn’t even rent a place because of my poor credit. I’m still rebuilding my credit to this day.

Having lived that personally, I always suggest to women that they talk to their banker or advisor privately, if they’re facing these types of abuses, because it isn’t always easy to do with your spouse present. And you absolutely need to read what you’re signing and insist on independent legal advice. My husband signed over our matrimonial home to his mother and he had me sign for partner consent at the lawyer’s office. After we divorced, I had no recourse to what was in the home I’d lived in for 10 years.

If you’re mentoring a woman with little work experience and education, how do you advise her to generate an independent income?

There is always a way. I tell women, ‘Pick up a job on the side.’ One of my mentees right now is a student and I told her to pick up something on campus because she’s going there anyway to study. And there are jobs you can do from home, online, like tutoring kids.

I also recommend having multiple sources of income. When I was at University of Toronto, I was doing night shifts at the student centre—I could study there, because it was quiet at night. I was also working as a student mentor, a teaching assistant and a research assistant. I love cooking so I was cooking food and selling it to students on campus, too. These five jobs at the same time added up to my independence money. I’m a big believer in multiple sources of income because that provides a safety net.

The onus still seems to be on the survivor to create her own escape plan. How can employers better support women seeking financial security to flee abuse?

Companies need to create inclusive environments where women feel safe to speak up about what’s happening at home and don’t feel like it’s a career-limiting move, or that they’ll lose their job or be judged. There can be signs about domestic abuse and resources around the workplace; that shows female employees it’s OK to talk about these things here.

They can also train leaders to know what kind of language to use and what resources to point a woman to, if she comes forward. There can be people trained to help her build financial autonomy, for example to open a separate bank account and invest in an employees’ savings plan, so some of her earnings are set aside before they even show up on her pay cheque.

Employers can also make paid leave available to a woman who is trying to leave domestic abuse. It’s not only the right thing to do, because it could potentially save lives, it’s the smart thing to do. Companies would save hundreds of millions of dollars every year on rehiring, retraining and absences. And if you support someone on that journey, imagine the employee loyalty and productivity after that?

How can we be more supportive as a society?

When women come to Canada, they should be put into a mandatory course where they learn about their basic rights under family law and under violence law—what is abuse and what is not. They should learn how to access a lawyer and know there are shelters, food banks and resources in their community, so they will not have to worry about being destitute and on the streets if they leave.

And our school curriculums need to include topics like healthy relationships and abusive behavior, so our children and our youth can be more proactive, rather than doing damage control after abuse has happened. We need to teach our girls more life skills, with financial literacy being a big part of that.

When my eldest daughter turned 14, which is the minimum age you can work in Canada, I told her, ‘You’ve got to get a job.’ She got her first job at 15, in a bubble tea place. Now she has all kinds of money management skills. She knows what to do if she gets laid off and needs to find something else. And she knows how to deal with a difficult boss. She has skills that I maybe learned at the age of 35. My ex-husband was flabbergasted that she was working and asked if we needed money. But it was never about the money. I wanted to make sure she had those skills.

If you are experiencing domestic abuse, you can call Assaulted Women’s Helpline toll-free, 24 hours a day, at: 1-866-863-0511.

Ways you can help:


A love letter…

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Dear Community,

There are a lot of reasons we love you. Maybe even too many to count? But if there was ever a day to try and list them, today is it.

We love your diversity. We celebrate all the many different languages, ways of thinking, abilities, ideas, and yes, the food, that makes us proud to call you home.

We love the agencies working across Peel, Toronto and York Region, caring for us all in the selfless ways they do. And the art galleries, museums, community festivals, stores and local restaurants that make you a vibrant and exciting place to be.

We love the streets, alleys, parks, buildings and houses that combine to make you. You feel like a place we want to be, to raise our kids and go to work and visit with friends.

We love that everyone that is part of you cares about one another. There is a sense of belonging in you and enough abundance that everyone can have a good life.

We love the people who walk your streets, who take a stand for what they believe is right, who fight for the things we value as Canadians, and who don’t stand as individuals but as a connected whole.

We love you despite the problems, the challenges, the #UNIGNORABLE issues, those things that can seem hard and unsolvable. In fact, it makes us love you more.

So, to you on Valentine’s Day, we send our love. We think you’re amazing, Community. And that’s not just today. It’s every day, and, in the years ahead we’ll show our local love in everything we do.

Xo

United Way Greater Toronto

Three ways to ensure the safety of Black youth in schools

What does educational success and inclusion look like for Black youth? This question shaped a recent panel discussion convened by United Way’s Black Community Advisory Council (BCAC), which mobilizes community members around pressing issues affecting Peel’s Black community. The council invited thought leaders from across the Black community to weigh in on the best ways to help young people feel supported and safe at school—and beyond.

1. Engage youth

There is strong evidence that points to the urgency of engaging community leaders—including Black youth—in a dialogue as well as systemic change. According to Wayne Brunton, superintendent of education at the Dufferin Peel District Catholic School Board, many school administrators don’t always understand what Black students are going through. “There is a lack of understanding around the specific experiences of Black students, they are being treated like they are troublemakers,” he notes. A United Way-supported research report—The Black Community in Peel—echoes similar findings. It notes that Black youth felt unwanted, devalued and socially isolated in Peel Region. It mentioned factors such as teachers’ low expectations of Black students, relatively few Black teachers in schools and the relative absence of Blacks and Black culture in the curriculum as contributors to Black youth’s feelings of exclusion. “We need young students to continuously give feedback,” says Melissa Wilson, Vice President of Mayfield Secondary School. She adds, “parents and youth are our strongest stakeholders. If you feel like your assignments are too Eurocentric, voice that. Speak up about anti-Black racism. Advocate for yourself. This is not a privilege. It’s your human right.”

2. Examine what safety looks like

Wilson urges that we re-examine what we mean by safety. “When we think about safety, we need to ensure the psychological safety of Black students. We need to understand why Black students feel like they need to code switch (the modifying of one’s speech, behavior, appearance, etc. to adapt to different sociocultural norms) for the risk of being labeled as having behavioural problems.” Brunton stressed the need to listen to Black youth in order to understand what safety looks like to them in order to implement system level changes. “Safety is our priority but if we are not listening to Black youth, how will we understand the barriers to education?”

3. Reinforce education as a right, not a privilege

The school boards in Peel Region aren’t alone. It’s an issue across the GTA. In fact, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) reports that there was variation in high school graduation rates among racialized groups in 2016. For example, students in the Grade 9 cohort who identified themselves as Black had lower high school graduation rates (77%) than students who identified as East Asian, South Asian and Southeast Asian (96%, 92% and 90 respectively). The numbers point to a trend of Black youth being left behind in the education system.

Marc Andrews, honorary chair of BCAC, is deputy chief of the Peel Regional Police and the first Black senior officer in the history of the force. “Education is a right, not a privilege. We need to build a community where if you make an honest effort, you would not be denied opportunity.” The panel demonstrated the need for multiple stakeholders to work together to have a wraparound effect and a desire for policies, initiatives and practices that give hope for a better community. To help Black youth succeed, United Way currently allocates $352,029 towards programs that provide leadership development activities, counselling and support to enhance the academic success of high school students. We Rise Together—initiated by United Way—is the Peel District School Board’s Action Plan to identify, understand, minimize and eliminate the marginalization experienced by Black male students in schools. Members of the Black Community Advisory Council continue to advance the work of the initiative in partnership with Peel District School Board.

“We need to all work together to build a bias free and inclusive community,” said chief Andrews. “The development of safety and security of our youth should always be our community’s top priority.”

Find out what four Black changemakers in the GTA want to tell youth this Black History Month.

Can literacy lift children out of poverty?

Illiteracy is associated with developing countries, but it’s an issue right here in Canada—often linked to the intergenerational cycle of poverty that affects children long before they enter the school system.

Four out of 10 Canadian adults have literacy skills “too low to be fully competent in most jobs in our modern economy,” according to The Conference Board of Canada. And the reports that only 47 per cent of students from the lowest income bracket (families earning less than $30,000 per year) met the provincial standard for reading.

Red copy on a back background saying: The low-income rate among people with low literacy skills is 29%—more than three times that of those with high literacy skills

“At a national level, in comparison to other countries, Canada is doing very well, but when you boil that down to a community level, there are communities in Ontario that are really struggling,” said Camesha Cox, managing director of The Reading Partnership. “At the top of the list are Black and Indigenous children and youth.”

Cox founded The Reading Partnership eight years ago, after returning from a teaching job in the U.K., where she developed a program to help high-school students who were reading at a primary-school level (or not at all).

“I thought, first of all, how does a person get to Grade 7 without literacy skills?” said Cox. So, when she returned to Toronto, she further developed the program to work with both children and parents, starting when the children were still young (ages four to six). For those who don’t read at the provincial level by the age of eight, she said, the likelihood they’ll continue to struggle through school and later in life increases.

Tax dollars are poured into the educational system, says Cox, yet it’s still failing many children. It’s not because these children have learning disabilities, adds Cox, but rather that they may have gaps in their education.

In a low-income home, for example, children might not have access to reading materials, or they may attend under-resourced daycares or schools. Single parents or those with precarious employment may be working multiple jobs and have less time to spend with their children at home.

“There is no system or protocol in place to ensure that those learning gaps are addressed and you’re caught up,” said Cox. That’s where community-based literacy interventions come in.

A key component to making this work, however, is involving parents, which is why The Reading Partnership also teaches parents how to teach their children to read. The program has worked with hundreds of families in the Toronto neighbourhood of Kingston Galloway Orton Park (KGO). In 12 weeks, children progress from not knowing their letter sounds to the ability to read and respond to comprehensive questions.

Cox specifically chose KGO as a starting point for the program. “When you see the food bank lines, even in the dead of winter, the line is long and it extends outside and people will wait in the cold and the snow and the rain,” she said. “Poverty is real and it’s dense in this community. The link between poverty and literacy is real, too. How does somebody who doesn’t have the literacy skills fill out forms, how do they become gainfully employed?”

While there are community programs, “there are still marginalized families in the community that don’t know about or don’t feel comfortable engaging and interacting with these services,” said Cox. “It’s our responsibility to bridge that gap—we’re trying to create a program and services that are meeting marginalized families where they are.”

This fall, for example, the program was piloted for the first time in one of the neediest schools in the community, where about 50 per cent of every Grade 3 class is struggling to meet the provincial standard for reading. “The teachers in the school have jumped at the opportunity to support this program,” said Cox. So far, they’ve seen an improvement in attitudes toward reading; kids are more excited and focused in class.

EarlyON Child and Family Centres also provide free family programs to parents and their children (up to six years of age) in communities and in some schools, supporting parent education and fostering healthy child development. This includes a library program, where families can take home (and keep) free books.

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“I think the only way you can break intergenerational poverty is giving children opportunities to read,” said Cynthia Pommells, family resource program manager for EarlyON programs with the Delta Family Resource Centre. “When you improve their reading ability, it’s a way of giving them an education and an opportunity to build better lives as they get older.”

The program engages children—and parents. “The changes can happen when parents become interested … where you’re engaging the parents and then letting them know why we need to do this,” said Pommells.

In some cases, parents may lack literacy skills themselves, so they’re not able to help their child at home (or, even if there are books at home, the parents might not put an emphasis on reading). According to Statistics Canada, 17 per cent of Canadian adults aged 16 to 65 had a literacy score of Level 1 or below (meaning they can only find single pieces of information in short texts). Among those with the lowest levels of literacy, 29 per cent were in low-income households.

If children grow up with poor reading skills, they’re more likely to end up working unskilled jobs—and continue living in poverty “because of the intergenerational piece they inherited from their parents,” said Pommells. “So, we try to give parents that educational piece also.”

Literacy allows children to successfully move onto post-secondary education and become gainfully employed, said Cox, but it’s not the only benefit. When she was young, books allowed her to ‘travel,’ despite her inability to physically travel. “I was able to imagine and experience a world outside of my everyday lived experiences through the books I was reading,” she said.

“A child in poverty can experience a world outside of their own through books,” said Cox. “They need to be able to hope and dream and aspire to something better … Books provide another opportunity to see and experience a positive world and positive people.”

Ways you can help:

How to get mental health help for your child

We reached out to several mental health experts to put together a tip sheet for parents. It can help you recognize some of the signs of mental illness in children and youth and learn more about resources in your community where you can access services and supports.

SIGNS THAT YOUR CHILD OR TEEN MIGHT BE STRUGGLING

One of the first signs that your child or teen may be struggling with mental illness? They may start to behave in a way that is unusual or out of character for them. For example, if they used to be quite social and outgoing and they suddenly become more isolated, even refusing to go to school or interact with their peers, this could be a red flag.  “You may also notice changes in a child’s appetite or sleeping patterns,” says Myra Levy, Clinical Director at East Metro Youth Services, a United Way-supported agency. “Sometimes mental health concerns, for example depression and anxiety, can also be triggered by a stressful or traumatic event including a divorce, a serious breakup or a death in the family. Your child or teen may tell you that they’re not feeling happy or that they’re having thoughts about suicide.” It’s also important to remember that you are not alone: 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder and only one in five children who need mental health services receives them.

WAYS TO GET HELP:

IN AN EMERGENCY

If you suspect your child or teen is at risk of harming themselves or others, and you feel that you’re not able to keep them safe, take them to a hospital emergency department right away, advises Dr. Joanna Henderson, a psychologist and Director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health at CAMH. In less urgent situations, Dr. Henderson also suggests that parents can call United Way-supported Distress Centres for support and advice on other appropriate community or professional resources to help your child. Young people can also call the Kids Help Phone to speak to a counsellor and to learn more about other mental health supports in the community.

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FAMILY DOCTOR

Many parents often turn to their family doctor or pediatrician for mental health support. The Toronto Star notes that, according to the Ontario Medical Association, family physicians deliver about half of all mental health services in Ontario. This includes supports such as assessments, therapy and prescribing medication. If your family doctor or pediatrician works as part of a multidisciplinary team, he or she can also refer children and their parents to other healthcare professionals on the team including psychologists, nurse practitioners or social workers. All of these services are typically covered by OHIP when delivered in this setting.

COMMUNITY MENTAL HEALTH CENTRES

There are also a number of accredited community-based mental health centres, including United Way-supported East Metro Youth Services, where parents and their children can access a range of mental health services. The best way to find a centre near you is to visit Connex Ontario or call United Way-supported 211 for resources in Peel, Toronto and York Region. Some community mental health centres offer walk-in clinics where parents and their children can access help with no doctor’s referral/diagnosis or appointment required. The services provided by these centres are also paid for by the government, private donors and, in some cases, supported by organizations, including United Way. Additional services range from one-on-one/group counselling sessions to more intensive options including alternative classrooms and residential treatment programs. United Way also invests in a variety of community-based mental health programs that support vulnerable and marginalized groups including LGBTQ+ and homeless youth. Counselling services at community mental health centres are typically provided by professionals with Masters-level designations in social work, psychology or counselling. “Although traditionally there have been wait lists to access psychiatry or community counselling services, walk-in clinics are supporting early access and reduced wait times,” says Alanna Burke, former Clinical Manager at East Metro, which is the lead agency for infant, child and adolescent mental health in Toronto. The agency, in partnership with the Hospital for Sick Children, piloted a telepsychiatry project and plans to scale up the initiative across the city to connect young people with psychiatrists to provide faster diagnosis.

SPECIALISTS

Many family doctors will also refer parents and their children/teens to specialists including psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can assess and diagnose mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or ADHD, among others. They are also licensed to provide therapy and prescribe medication. Although services provided by psychiatrists and other specialists in the publicly-funded system (including hospitals) are covered by OHIP, wait times for doctors can be significant and variable, depending on circumstances, says Henderson. Psychologists, who do not typically require a doctor’s referral, can diagnose mental illness and provide therapy, but can’t prescribe medication. When they work in the publicly-funded system their services are covered by OHIP. While wait lists to see psychologists in private practice can be shorter, the hourly cost to see this type of specialist ranges from approximately $150- $250-per-hour. Henderson says some specialists offer a “sliding scale” of hourly fees for lower-income clients. Specialists such as psychologists and psychiatrists offer a range of therapies for children and teens including cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy and mindfulness—in both an individual and group settings. There are also a small number of school board social workers in school boards in Peel, Toronto and York Region that offer supports to students in a school setting. “As a parent of a child or teen struggling with mental illness, it’s also important to take care of yourself,” adds Henderson. “We know that when families are getting support together, that can really lead to positive outcomes.”

Want to learn more?

Ask the Expert: What happens when kids don’t get the best start in life?

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Anita Khanna
Director, Social Action & Community Building
Family Service Toronto

Anita Khanna is the Director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto, a United Way-supported agency that helps promote the health and wellbeing of children and families. She’s also the National Coordinator of Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition that works to build awareness and support for ending child poverty. Imagine a City spoke with Anita for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn what happens when kids don’t get the best start in life.

1. What sort of supports do children require in order to get the best start in life?

Prenatal programs, access to nutritious food, a stable home environment and opportunities to develop language, cognitive and social skills are just some of the supports that help children start life on a high note. Community connections are also important. From a very young age, children pick up on whether their families are reflected and respected in their community. Whether a family is racialized, Indigenous, are newcomers, LGBTQ+ or led by single parents, they need to be appreciated and accepted.

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2. How important are the early years (ages 0-6) when it comes to childhood development?

The early years are the most important time in our life for brain development, learning, behaviour and health. These years are crucial to a child’s future wellbeing, self-esteem and physical and mental health. Spending quality time with family, one-on-one interaction with caregivers and educators in childcare settings, stimulating learning opportunities and affirmation of one’s value are vital in laying a solid foundation.

3. Across Canada, 1 in 6 Children live in households that struggle to put food on the table. How does poverty create gaps, or inequities, when it comes to the early years?

Side effects of poverty related to inadequate or unsafe housing, stress within a household and a lack of proper nutrition have a major impact on a child’s health, as well as their performance in school. If a child moves from school to school because of an unstable housing situation or because their parents are precariously employed, it puts a lot of stress on the child.

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4. What are some of the lasting effects across a child’s life-span when they don’t get the best start in life?

Limited access to stimulating learning opportunities can delay literacy and vocabulary development. Disruptions in school may occur because a child is unable to focus because of poor nutrition. Both of these scenarios can lead to lower levels of education and can be precursors to having difficulty securing work as an adult. Constant stress can also lead to long-term physical and mental health conditions. Not only can these issues persist into adulthood, but sometimes they can never be undone.

5. What role can the non-profit sector play in ensuring children (including those living in poverty) get the best start in life?

The non-profit sector plays a vital role in helping children get a strong start in life. Creative play and literacy programs, as well as after school supports are often the first things that come to mind, however, wide-ranging supports for families are also important. Employment programs, parent groups and newcomer settlement supports can help families find more solid footing, helping to address core issues they face as a result of living on a low income. Non-profits are nimble and close to the ground and we should ensure community members have a voice in shaping programming. We should also keep track of emerging trends and requests from the community to help shape our services and inform our advocacy for social justice. It is important that we raise our voices to talk about policy and program changes that can improve the lives of the families we work with every day.

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6. How can investing in children make an important, lasting impact on the social, economic and physical wellbeing of our community?

Children are sponges that reflect the environment they’re in, and as the next generation of thinkers, workers and creators a lot is riding on their wellbeing. Activities that boost confidence and encourage problem solving help kids develop important skills and confidence. When we foster those skills, and adequately support their families through smart public policies, we help build children up for success. Ultimately, healthier children grow into healthier adults. Investing in children’s well-being and reducing poverty is a foundational investment in strengthening our communities and our country.

Ways you can help:

5 ways to raise good humans

An earlier version of this story appeared on imagineacity.ca in April 2017 and has been updated and edited here.

This time of year is all about giving back—to friends, family and community. And it’s never too early to get your kids—mini philanthropists-in-the-making—thinking about the importance of doing good. So we’ve put together this “cheat sheet” on simple and quick ways to start a conversation around empathy, generosity and being a good human.

1. Show them the way

“Our children are like little sponges who suck up a lot of what we say and do,” says Mary Bean, Senior Director, Culture and Leadership at Learn2. “So one great way to get them involved in helping others is to do so ourselves.” You can start doing this when your kids are young—Bean started volunteering with her little ones when they were six—by bringing them along and talking about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. “Tie some purpose to your activities, and explain, ‘I do this because it’s important for…,’” Bean says. She recommends picking volunteer opportunities that are connected to your child’s world, like their soccer team, school or local playground. “That helps to bring it to a frame of reference that they can understand,” she explains. With her kids, Bean chose activities that they could be actively involved in. “I wouldn’t have brought them to a meeting where I was sitting on a board as a volunteer, or that kind of thing. It was more things like setting up for a bake sale, or getting ready for their school fun fair, so they could see the results of their efforts—and enjoy them.”

2. Get them inspired

“Volunteer experiences need to be tied to something that gives you a sense of connection and belonging as an individual. So, what is your child interested in?” says Bean. It could be volunteering at the Humane Society and giving some furry friends a little love on a Saturday morning, she says. Or, finding a way to help kids their age. “Think about the questions your child is asking about the world, or things you’re bringing up at the table over a meal that they’re asking more than one question about,” she recommends.

When they get a bit older, you can also sign kids up for programs that have a volunteer component like Girl Guides or Scouts. Or, she says, if they want to try a new activity, use that as an opening to get them to think about giving back. If, for example, they ask to be on a hockey team, make it part of the deal for them to help you do something community-minded that’s connected to the activity, such as making the weekly team snack. That way, you’ll connect good-human behaviour to something they love.

You can also encourage them to come up with their own ideas for community initiatives or ways to give back. Who knows, you might have a social innovator on your hands.

3. Make them feel appreciated

One way to help kids blossom into good humans is to make sure they feel appreciated for what they offer, notes Bean. “Kids aren’t thanked very much,” she says, so it’s a powerful thing to let them know they contributed in a meaningful way and helped others. “A sense of belonging and a sense of happiness are connected,” explains Bean, “which is why I think volunteerism is so powerful, because you’re really contributing and belonging to something bigger than yourself.” Thanking your kids, or having an organizer thank them, will make them feel that they’re now part of a wider community, encouraging them to keep giving back.

4. Broaden their minds

Part of the process of raising kids who give back is helping them learn about the world beyond their lives, says Sara Marlowe, a clinical social worker who teaches mindfulness to children and families. One great way to start these conversations is by reading books together about people with different experiences. “For younger kids, books can be a gentle way to introduce concepts,” Marlowe says. Another way to offer the idea that there are things your family may have that others may not is by guiding them to set aside some of their allowance money to donate, she explains. This can help them understand not only that people in their community are in need, but also that there is something they can do to help.

5. Foster empathy

Cultivating self-compassion and empathy is a way to build on your child’s desire to want to help, explains Marlowe. “Research shows when we’re kinder to ourselves, and more compassionate toward ourselves, we’re kinder to and more compassionate with other people,” she says. “It strengthens our ability to be empathetic.”

One way to help our kids be more empathetic is to explicitly talk about how others may be feeling. “From very early on, we can start to encourage children to be aware of others,” says Marlowe. So, point out facial expressions in a picture book and ask your child how that person feels, or if you see an incident at the playground, ask your little one to consider what that experience was like for each of the kids present.

This is also another area where you can model the behaviour you want to see. Remember, kids are like sponges, so when you show kindness and empathy to others, your children will pick up on it.

Want to learn more about how we can help kids become good humans?