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.

Why should we care about a strong social safety net? 

Debra Shime
Senior Vice President, Community Impact
United Way Toronto York Region

What is a social safety net? And why is it essential for taking care of individuals and families across our community? Imagine a City spoke with Debra Shime, Senior Vice President, Community Impact at United Way Toronto & York Region to learn how a strong social web ensures everyone in our community has access to the opportunities they need to thrive.

1. What is a strong social safety net?

A social safety net wraps a person in a network of community supports, ensuring the help they need is available, right where they need it. For that to happen, these services must be available in all corners of our community—so someone can visit an agency and find the help they need all in one place, or with referrals to other agencies nearby. United Way is part of that safety net because we invest in a network of agencies that ensure crucial services are available in neighbourhoods where people need them most. A resident once told me that she was so glad the network of agencies was there. It made her feel better knowing it was available if and when she needed it. That’s a good reminder for everyone in our community that you never know when you’re going to need support personally or for your family or friends.

2. Why is this “circle of care” around our community so important?

We often don’t focus enough on what would go missing if we didn’t have a strong community services sector. Of course, crucial supports would not be available, but we’d also lose the glue that brings us together in times of celebration, culture-building and neighbourhood advocacy. We’d lose the integration of our community. It’s those community connections that really make a person feel like they belong. At United Way, we want residents in a community to have the resources, ability and capacity to come together to feel that sense of belonging. And to then have the resources to build upon it and keep it alive and well.

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3. How do single issues like poverty and youth unemployment fit into this larger embrace of our community?  

Many individuals come to community agencies for help with one particular issue—whether it’s a newcomer who was referred to an ESL class or a young person attending a resume writing workshop. For many, they show up for that service, but there can be a number of related issues they also need help with, like the newcomer who shows up for the ESL class, but also needs help finding a job or enrolling their kids in school. That’s where single issue meets circle of care. You arrive for one issue, but you enter into a network of services that can wrap around your entire family—daycare for your child, a gym where you can play and seniors programming for an elderly parent. That’s the beauty of multi-service community agencies and why United Way is committed to investing in creating a connected, strong, coordinated social safety net. That doesn’t mean a focused approach to a single issue isn’t important. We do it, for example, in our new Youth Success Strategy focused on increasing the employability of young people or our Building Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy that looks to deal with the issues related to a concentration of poverty in certain neighbourhoods. But just as important is investing in the larger, foundational support provided by a strong community services sector that acknowledges the complexity and interconnectedness of all the challenges people face.

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