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.

3 tips for leading philanthropic change at your company

Our guest blogger this week is James Temple, Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer at PwC Canada. He provides oversight to ways the firm is embedding social, environmental and economic integrity into the fabric of its business. In 2012, he was named one of the world’s top CSR practitioners by the Centre for Sustainability and Excellence and was an inaugural Notable.ca Young Professional of the Year. He has also been featured in articles and videos for TED, the Globe and Mail, Forbes, Strategy Magazine and Canadian Business. In this Imagine a City post, he gives us tips on how you can lead philanthropic change at your company.

James Temple
Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer
PwC Canada

Our region is home to corporate citizens who are leading innovation across all sectors of our economy. But today’s corporate leaders are about much more than advancing bottom lines, they’re also the engines that drive community building and social change by harnessing the passion and leadership capabilities of their work forces from the inside, out.

As organizational structures evolve, so do the demands of savvy employee brand ambassadors. The landscape of philanthropy and employee fundraising is changing and we need to make a business case for strengthening knowledge and leadership through workplace philanthropy.

Here are a few leading practices that can help you adapt to philanthropic movements within your business:

1. Make philanthropy real and make it relatable 

Each of us can play a role in helping to re-imagine and align philanthropic efforts with our organization’s purpose and your values. Don’t be afraid to share stories about how your personal engagement in philanthropy aligns with your values and has had a positive impact on your leadership journey.

By building community capabilities into your personal brand, you can help to teach others how philanthropy can support better relationship management with teams and clients, enhancing trust between and across teams, the business and community. Philanthropy is accessible and it’s personal.

2. Re-frame conversations around community impact versus dollars raised

There is significant public interest in charitable transparency and increased scrutiny on the amount of money that charities are allocating towards fundraising and administration. We need to find a better proxy to help build trust between employee donors and community agencies who need funding to keep the lights on to do their work.

Studies suggest that people respond better to measures that focus on social impacts—for example, how many lives have been saved as a direct result of donations, or how many children get a healthy breakfast as a direct result of funding a meal program. By communicating progress in this way, we take the pressure of the balance sheet and can go well beyond the ‘fundraising thermometer’ to help rationalize why people should join a community movement.

3. Provide options that make room for time, talent and treasure

People can give back in many ways and effective corporate citizens make room for people to give in a way that’s right for them. Every contribution counts. From empowering people to volunteer to learn more about how a community organization makes a difference, to looking for ways to help people share their professional skills pro-bono, the value of a contribution can be amplified by helping people choose which options are the optimal mix for their personal circumstances. What’s most important? Creating momentum and personal ownership so a person believes they can be the change that they are a part of.

Want to learn more about how PwC and other leading corporate citizens are blazing a trail when it comes to philanthropy in the workplace? Visit United Way’s Keeping Good Company website and follow PwC and United Way on May 16 when PwC will be hosting a conversation in partnership with United Way at the Economic Club of Canada that digs into this very topic.

How to get mental health help for your child

It’s CMHA‘s Mental Health Week! We recently 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.  A recent Toronto Star article 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 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, 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 behavior 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 both Toronto and York Region who 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.”

How to raise kids who give back

It’s National Volunteer Week! And it’s never too early to get your kids—mini philanthropists-in-the-making—thinking about the importance of giving back. So we’ve put together this “cheat sheet” on simple and quick ways to start a conversation around empathy, generosity and giving back.

1. Lead by example: “Our children are like little sponges who suck up a lot of what we say and do,” says Mary Bean, Director, Employee and Volunteer Engagement at United Way. “So one great way to get them involved in helping others is to do so ourselves.” This is something you can do from a young age by both bringing your kids along when you volunteer 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. Bean first started volunteering with her kids when they were six years old. She says this is a good age to get children excited about helping others as they start to explore their own independence. With her little ones, she 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. Build on their interests: “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 helping to give some pets a little love on a Saturday morning, she says. Or, helping a child overseas. “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 them up for programs that have a volunteer component like Girl Guides or Cubs. Or, she says, if they want to try a new activity, it’s a great time to get them involved. If, for example, they ask to be on a hockey team, make it part of the deal for them to help you with something connected to that like making the weekly team snack, explains Bean.

3. Say ‘thank you’: One way to keep kids in the giving spirit 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 the event organizer thank them, will help them feel they’re now part of a wider community.

4. Be a gardener: Part of the process of raising kids who give back is planting seeds that help them see the world beyond their lives, says Sara Marlowe, a clinical social worker who teaches mindfulness to children and families. This can start at any age. 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,” she says. Another way to offer the idea that there are things your family may have that others may not is by guiding your kids to set aside some of their allowance money to donate, she explains. “For example, our son gets $2 pocket money and puts aside $1 each week for ‘penguins and polar bears,’ his choice.”

5. Encourage empathy: Cultivating self-compassion and empathy is a way to build on your child’s desire to want to help, explains Marlowe, who is also a writer, and the author of the children’s book My New Best Friend, which teaches kids about being a friend to themselves. “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 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.

Looking for an easy way to get your child volunteering? Have your mini philanthropist (aged 10+) tag along with you at this year’s Scotiabank Rat Race! Stay tuned for volunteer opportunities—sign-up begins May 3.

Changemakers to watch: Jesse Thistle

Homelessness. It’s not simply an issue of not having a place to live. It’s complex, interconnected with other issues like mental health and addiction that combine to trap people in an endless cycle. People experiencing homelessness become disconnected, isolated and left on the fringes of our community. But, according to Jesse Thistle, this week’s Changemaker, understanding homelessness—particularly for Indigenous people—gets us all one step closer to finding a way to tackle it that goes beyond a hot meal and a place to sleep.

WHO: When it comes to understanding Indigenous homelessness, Jesse is more connected to his work than most. “For 10 years I experienced episodic homelessness,” says Jesse, who is Metis-Cree. “I was struggling with addiction and was in and out of jail. I started to notice that there were a lot of people like me in prison, on the streets and in shelters.” In fact, in Toronto alone, approximately 15 per cent of all homeless individuals are Indigenous, yet they make up less than 1 per cent of the city’s population. After overcoming addiction, and with sheer will, determination, and tons of support from his mentor, Carolyn Podruchny, and wife, Lucie, Jesse made it his life’s mission to study the issue in an effort to use his experience to help others. He’s become a top Canadian academic and has received a slew of awards for his work including being named a Trudeau and Vanier Scholar. In 2016, the PhD student became the National Representative for Indigenous Homelessness for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH).

WHY: Jesse is helping to literally “write the definition” of Indigenous homelessness for the COH. Plus, through scholarly work, advocacy and storytelling, he’s working to help all Canadians better understand the issue and collectively move us closer to finding long-term solutions. “Indigenous homelessness really isn’t about not having a place to live—it’s about a loss of relationships,” he says. “If people don’t have good relationships, they become disconnected from society. Growing up, I didn’t have those supports and it led to my homelessness.” Jesse’s lived experience, academic insight and passion to help others has not only made him one of the leading experts on how social issues like homelessness stem from historical trauma—it’s made him one of Canada’s most impactful voices of Indigenous advocacy. “When I look at the person that I once was—an addict, criminal, homeless, without an identity—I can’t help but want to help others out of that position.”

WHAT’S NEXT: You’ll be seeing a lot of Jesse in 2017. Just a few weeks ago, he was featured in a CBC Radio interview exploring his ancestry, as well as his current work studying 20th century road allowance communities—makeshift Metis settlements built along roads and railways in northern Saskatchewan. In October, he’s hoping to release the definition of Indigenous homelessness at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference, and will also be featured in a TVO special that offers an in-depth look into his Metis-Cree family history.

GOOD ADVICE: 

5 reasons why employment reform matters

Job insecurity has become a hot-button issue in today’s rapidly changing labour market. In fact, we know from our research that almost half of all workers in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area are working in some degree of precarious employment. This has a major impact on the wellbeing of individuals and their families, trapping them in a cycle of insecure employment that makes it difficult to move into better opportunities. The soon-to-be released Changing Workplaces Review is a chance to further spark conversation around this vital issue and to highlight the importance of employment reform and its impact on individuals, families, communities and businesses across our region. Here are five reasons why employment reform matters.

1. The labour market has changed—and we need to keep pace: Job insecurity has been rising while stable employment has been eroding since the 1970s. Keeping our labour markets dynamic and flexible, and at the same time, supporting workers outside of standard employment, requires new approaches to policies and institutions. Other jurisdictions in the U.S. and Australia have already taken action to give people in precarious jobs better protection and more options for building a good life. For example, New York City extended paid leave for most employees in workplaces of 5 or more and unpaid leave for most people in workplaces of 1-4 workers. Our region is ready to step up to meet these challenges head-on in order to achieve a balance between our social and economic objectives.

2. It helps level the playing field for our region’s most vulnerable individuals: A community is only as strong as the sum of its parts. In this new labour market, the most vulnerable workers are often those that are impacted the most negatively. People who are precariously employed experience penalties that others in stable, secure jobs don’t face. For example, many precarious workers aren’t formally recognized as employees, and aren’t protected by the Employment Standards Act. And only 12 per cent of those in precarious employment are paid if they miss a day’s work. It’s these workers who need the most protection. Employment reform will bring us one step closer to giving these individuals a fair chance at a good life.

3. A job is more than just a means to an end: In fact, we have an opportunity to make jobs a “pathway” to income and employment security. Many precariously employed people have a hard time moving into better opportunities—partly because there is no provision for preventing different treatment of workers based on employment relationship or hours of work in the Employment Standards Act. Employment reform can help people build futures that are strong, secure and prosperous by eliminating this disparity in compensation.

4. It’s good for business: Changes in the labour market aren’t just hurting people—they’re increasingly seen as having a negative effect on businesses. When people have unpredictable lives, they’re not engaged in their work and they also make more errors, according to Zeynep Ton, an adjunct associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management who has researched the topic extensively. However, we also know that when businesses invest in the security of their workforces, there tends to be less turnover and higher productivity. The bottom line? Good jobs aren’t just good for employees and communities, they’re good for business too. That’s why United Way Toronto & York Region has signed on to the Better Way to Build the Economy Alliance—a coalition of organizations from the community sector, private sector and labour. The Alliance has put together a compelling website to share the secret to a key success of several local employers: an investment in decent work. 

5. It’s good for communities: We know from our research that precarious employment traps people in a cycle that can be hard to break free from. This impacts individual lives—but it also impacts their communities. Workers who are precariously employed often delay starting families and are less likely to volunteer or give back to their community. There are economic and social consequences for the neighbourhoods where these people live.

We look forward to the upcoming conversation around employment reform, which represents the next major step to strengthening our economy by enabling a dynamic, engaged and productive workforce.

Federal budget: Crunching the numbers for our community

Pedro Barata
Senior Vice President, Strategic Initiatives & Public Affairs United Way Toronto & York Region

Our guest blogger this week is Pedro Barata, Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives & 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.

Annual budgets are always anticipated events, because they offer a government’s blueprint for how it plans to raise and spend funds—for health, education, transit and so many other things that we as citizens rely on. They are also policy documents, announcing and hinting at new government policies with respect to taxes, strategy development and investments.

The 2017 federal budget was especially top of mind, since the government had raised expectations on addressing the growing crisis of housing affordability across our country.

Here’s our take, as it relates to our work, and the future and prosperity of our community.

While investments in early learning fall short of what is currently required, this year’s budget did make a historic commitment to housing, childcare and skills development for youth. Building on 2016’s game-changing down-payment on a Canada Child Benefit—helping to lift thousands of kids out of poverty—this year’s budget also announced more than $11 billion (on top of the $2 billion from last year) to address homelessness and housing affordability.

Many of the proposals in this budget respond to ideas generated by the National Housing Collaborative (NHC). Convened by United Way Toronto & York Region, the NHC is a Canada-wide action group that has brought housing advocates, foundations, government agencies, and developers and landlords together to reach consensus on practical solutions to housing affordability. United Way is particularly encouraged by the creation of a $5-billion National Housing Fund, which will spur local solutions to systemic barriers to housing affordability. It will also prompt new investment models for our tower-renewal work within priority neighbourhoods.

We are equally excited to see investments in child-care spaces. Our work has shown that low-income households—and those affected by precarious employment—face a greater risk of choosing between a job and caring for their children.

Finally, youth facing multiple barriers, including poverty, racism and mental health, are more likely to have difficulty accessing tools and training for a successful career. We see it as smart public policy for the government to expand the Youth Employment Strategy in this year’s budget, with supports for at-risk populations. United Way’s Youth Success Strategy seeks to serve those kids who are farthest from the labour market, and we continue to discuss alignment and evaluation of the two strategies with officials in the federal government.

Our world is characterized by uncertain times, and it is very encouraging to see our federal government cast a vision—and lay the groundwork—for collaboration with United Way and other organizations. With that, we have the promise of growth, progress and systemic change to make our communities stronger. And our future that much brighter.

3 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we put together a list of three women who inspire us. These remarkable individuals live right here in Toronto and York Region—changing lives and making our community a better place to live each and every day.

JOSHNA MAHARAJ: Joshna’s appetite for community change is insatiable. As a busy chef with big ideas, the South African native has demonstrated a tremendous passion for turning her culinary interests into community activism. After graduating from McMaster University, Joshna spent time living in India before returning to Toronto to pursue a career in the food industry. Joshna believes passionately that food “is a crucial piece of community building and rejuvenation.” She began her culinary career at The Stop Community Food Centre and also volunteered at FoodShare, a United Way-supported agency, where she helped develop a student nutrition program. At the Scarborough Hospital, for example, she worked tirelessly to overhaul the patient menu to include healthier, more culturally-appropriate options—the first project of its kind in Ontario. These days she’s busy working on her vision to bring large-scale change to the healthcare, rehabilitation and education sectors so that people can access fresh, local food when they visit places like hospitals and universities. “Food is such a perfect common denominator,” says Joshna. “It nourishes our bodies, but it also nourishes our spirit. There is a connection and a conviviality that comes from gathering in a kitchen, community garden or at a table. These are things that really give people a sense of belonging.” We love Joshna’s passion for her work and her tireless efforts to bring people together around food. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next!

CHEYANNE RATNAM: At just 14, Cheyanne experienced hidden homelessness, couch-surfing with friends after she was forced to leave home because of family conflict and abuse. Cheyanne, who is Sri Lankan, was eventually placed into the care of the Children’s Aid Society where she remained during high school, yet managed to excel. Despite struggling with homelessness and a number of other barriers—including mental health issues like depression—Cheyanne was determined to build a better life for herself—and others just like her. Today, she’s thriving, after graduating from university and pursuing a busy career in the social services sector where she advocates on behalf of homeless newcomer youth and young people in and out of the child welfare and adoption system. One of her proudest accomplishments? In 2014, she co-founded What’s the Map—an advocacy and research group that has started a cross-sectoral conversation on how to remove barriers and better meet the needs of newcomer homeless youth. Cheyanne is also a public speaker for the Children’s Aid Foundation and a coordinator at Ryerson University for an education symposium for youth in care. And despite a busy schedule, she still finds time to mentor young people experiencing homelessness and other barriers. We’re inspired by Cheyanne’s remarkable resiliency and passion to help young people. And we’re not the only ones! Last year, her alma mater, York University, recognized her with a prestigious Bryden Award that celebrates remarkable contributions to the university community and beyond. “I hope to send a message to young people who are facing barriers that they are not alone and that it’s ‘OK to not be OK’. I want them to know that we’re here to help. The present circumstances should not define who you are or who you’ll become.”

SUSAN MCISAAC: We may be a little biased, but we think our recently-retired President and CEO, Susan McIsaac, is an extraordinarily inspiring individual who has dedicated her life’s work to championing social justice. During her 18 years at United Way (six years at the helm), Susan was a key architect of United Way’s transformation from trusted fundraiser to community mobilizer and catalyst for impact. She’s an inspiring example of a bold and compassionate leader who cares deeply about making a difference in the lives of people and families across our region. “We have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to make sure the kind of disenfranchisement that has cracked the foundation of other places doesn’t jeopardize our home,” explains Susan. “To make that happen, we need to re-commit ourselves to ensuring that anyone and everyone who works hard can get ahead.” It’s this very sense of commitment that continues to reverberate throughout the community services sector and beyond. So much so, in fact, that just last month, Susan was awarded the TRBOT’s Toronto Region Builder Award for her significant contribution to improving communities, and in 2014 was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by WXN.

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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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 in your every neighbourhood, 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, those things that can seem hard and unsolvable. In fact, it makes us love you more. Love you harder.

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 love in everything we do.

Xo

United Way

 

 

 

We asked our CEO these 3 questions…

Community. It’s at the heart of what we do. And for our President and CEO, Daniele Zanotti, it’s the reason why we work every single day to create an “uprising of care” that supports the people in the places where we live and work.

Watch the video below to hear Daniele’s answers to three questions that are close to his heart.

Stay tuned on Imagine a City to hear more from our CEO—and don’t forget to submit your own questions that Daniele can answer on our blog over the coming months.

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 well-being 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.
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3. Across Canada, nearly 1 in 5 children—and their families—lives below the poverty line. 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.
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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 well-being. 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.

3 things you might not know about poverty

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_SnapshotDid you know that 1 in 5 adults in Toronto and 1 in 7 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 2014 report, 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.

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 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 below 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 Imagine a City to read the latest insight from thought-leaders across our community and stay up-to-date on important social issues.

What is “hidden” homelessness?

Stephen Gaetz Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

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 7 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.

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Want to make a difference for someone experiencing homelessness or poverty? Give the gift of winter warmth by clicking on the image.

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.

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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. “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.”

Looking for a unique way to give back this holiday season? United Way’s Warmest Wishes ensures necessities like clothing and food are there for people experiencing poverty at a time when they need it most. Visit Warmest Wishes to make your gift today.

Coming together to build a stronger York Region

Wayne Emmerson
Chairman & CEO, York Region

Wayne Emmerson is currently serving his first term as York Region Chairman and CEO. He has more than two decades of political experience, most recently as the Mayor of the Town of Whitchurch-Stouffville for 17 years. He has also served as a board member for a number of organizations including the Markham-Stouffville Hospital, the GTA Mayors’ Committee and the Greater Toronto Services Board. The Regional Municipality of York and United Way have a long history of collaboration, and as Chair & CEO of York Region, Emmerson has been a champion of United Way’s work.

York Region is now one of Canada’s fastest-growing large urban municipalities with nearly 1.2 million people and approximately 25,000 new residents moving here every year. Overall, York Region is a diverse, vibrant and prosperous area with a very good quality of life.

While we celebrate a steady influx of new residents and businesses, like all rapidly growing municipalities we face some daunting issues including homelessness, an aging population and a growing number of vulnerable people with complex needs such as mental health and addiction problems.

The partnership between York Region and United Way Toronto & York Region has been extremely valuable as we deal with the challenges that come with unprecedented growth and a vast geographical area.

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By working hand-in-hand with United Way we are able to anticipate challenges, get ahead of problems and build community capacity. In the face of growing need, we have come together to develop meaningful career opportunities for youth facing multiple barriers, we have focused on helping Syrian refugees settle into their new homes after escaping the horrors of war and we have collaborated to ensure that precious financial resources are directed to as many worthy agencies and programs as possible.

Most recently, York Region and United Way produced a joint report on homelessness. The document entitled, Understanding the Numbers: Working Together to Prevent, Reduce and End Homelessness in York Region is important because it provides us with a much better picture of homelessness across the Region.

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With this report in hand, York Region and United Way will build on our current initiatives, address service gaps and analyze the effectiveness of our programs and services.  We will work with all partners towards mobilizing investments, resources and strategies that help deliver on the provincial government’s target to end chronic homelessness by 2025.

York Region and United Way have a long history of developing solutions and supporting our most vulnerable citizens in a time of need. Through collaboration these professionals have made a positive difference in the lives of our residents. I applaud everyone for their compassion and unwavering commitment to helping others. Their contribution to York Region’s exceptional quality of life is invaluable.

Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?

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Daniyal Zuberi
RBC Chair & Associate Professor of Social Policy, 
University of Toronto

Daniyal Zuberi is the RBC Chair and Associate Professor of Social Policy at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto. In 2015, he was elected to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. He was previously the William Lyon Mackenzie King Research Fellow at Harvard University. His innovative social policy research has made important contributions to the study of urban poverty, inequality, health, education, employment and social welfare. He has authored three books and other publications that examine the impact of public policy on vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in Canada and the United States. Imagine a City spoke with Daniyal for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to provide a big-picture lens on poverty across North America. 

1. What are some of the common drivers that contribute to poverty across North America, whether in Winnipeg or Washington?

adsc_5343Poverty in North America is multi-faceted, affecting many individuals, families, and communities. The real cause of poverty is the lack of income. Many people are working longer and harder simply to tread water, living only one or two missed paycheques away from major financial hardship. With the explosion of precarious employment, too many households struggle to balance work and family life requirements as individuals take on multiple jobs to make ends meet and deal with the stress and anxiety of supporting their families. A job is no longer enough and they struggle as the “working poor” trying to find affordable housing and childcare for their families.  For those unable to find work, they receive very limited support. Most of these individuals can’t access employment insurance benefits due to program restrictions. They join tens of thousands of others on wait lists for housing assistance and subsidized childcare as well as heavily-subscribed charitable programs such as food banks. Instead of helping and enabling these individuals and families, we trap them in poverty, failing to provide the training, support and education they need to upgrade their skills and find secure living-wage employment.

2. Discuss the recent U.S. election and how it has put a spotlight on the growing issue of rising income inequality.

The failure to adequately address the growing insecurity experienced by all too many North American households is one cause of the unexpected election outcome in the United States. Most of the economic gains over the past several decades have flowed exclusively to those at the top, especially in the U.S. Growing economic insecurity threatens social cohesion and people react to fears that their fortunes have stagnated, or that they’re falling behind. Countries that are more equal, or those with narrower income gaps, have much higher social development outcomes. Life expectancy is longer, infant mortality is lower, there is greater social trust, lower crime and incarceration rates, less mental illness and better health and educational outcomes. Importantly, there is also more equality of opportunity. One of the best ways to address growing inequalities is to support those struggling at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy.

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3. How have changing labour market conditions, including precarious employment, impacted poverty?

The changing labour market is a major contributor to growing poverty in North America. With a shift away from manufacturing to the service sector in a globalized economy, we’ve seen a rapid expansion of precarious employment including poverty wage, part-time, and insecure jobs that fail to lift individuals and families above the poverty line. Our employment protections and social welfare policies have failed to evolve to protect people from poverty in this new economy. When hours are cut or workers are laid off, many can’t receive support from employment insurance because they haven’t worked enough hours to qualify. It’s important to note that these changes do not affect all workers equally. Women and racialized minorities, especially new immigrants, are the most likely to work in these precarious jobs. They’re forced to make impossible tradeoffs between working extra hours, but spending more on childcare, paying for rent or food. This is true in both Canada and the United States.

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4. Discuss the changing nature of poverty in North America and how it differs in urban, suburban and rural contexts.

Poverty exists in cities, rural areas, and suburban areas. Many of the causes and consequences of poverty in these three contexts are similar, but important differences also exist. For example, poor individuals and families in the suburbs are less visible. In Vaughan, a wealthy area in York Region, we see “hidden homelessness” where people are doubled or even tripled up living in other people’s basements. In suburban and rural areas, there are also problems with social isolation that also include greater challenges in terms of accessing transportation for services and employment opportunities. But the urban poor face some unique challenges too. Especially if high housing costs force them to live in stigmatized areas with high concentrations of poverty, where transit is less accessible, less frequent, and of poor quality. While it may be easier to access services for individuals living in urban neighbourhoods, living in a high poverty urban neighbourhood can also it make more difficult for a person to successfully obtain employment as a result of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and postal code. It can also require coping with more challenges including violence and schools that lack resources to address the major challenges facing their student populations. Fundamentally, in urban, suburban and rural contexts, poverty comes down to a lack of resources.

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5. Is there a single, best way to tackle poverty? If not, what are some common solutions we should be working towards?

No, I don’t think there’s a single solution. We need to continue to promote proactive policies and programs to prevent poverty and support struggling individuals and families. For example, we can raise social assistance rates to bring those households up above the poverty line. Expanding access to high-quality early childhood education will increase maternal employment and incomes by sending more mothers into the workplace, generating greater tax revenue and also reducing poverty. The research is clear that “housing first” and harm reduction approaches are far more effective than punitive measures to address problems such as homelessness and addiction. The latter results in an extremely expensive, reactive system where we end up spending more than required for policing, incarceration, hospitalization, and shelter services. We also need to focus on issues like raising the minimum wage, addressing a growing mental health crisis and providing individuals, including youth, with the training and support they need to find good jobs. Solutions at the local level are also important and include investments in high quality transit and community infrastructure. These include things like community hubs and health centres, parks, and community gardens that can really improve the quality of life for people in low-income neighbourhoods. These programs, along with significant policy reforms, could work together to reduce poverty quite dramatically.

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6. What is the role of the non-profits like United Way in mitigating the effects of poverty?

We have a healthy and vibrant social services sector. We need to continue to build on that and expand it. United Way and other organizations do great work in providing services and supports for vulnerable and at-risk populations. United Way does a particularly great job of raising awareness of important issues like precarious employment through its research. It also brings together coalitions to mobilize, to advocate for policy reforms and new programs and to fundamentally address some of the root causes of poverty with the goal of eradicating it.

7. Can we end poverty?

Absolutely, yes. Fundamentally we have to understand that we can end poverty if we have the political will. There are many places in the world—including Scandinavian countries—that have largely eliminated poverty. But it’s still extremely rare. Canada has done a lot more in terms of supporting those living on a low income and reducing poverty compared to the United States where we’ve seen a lot of cutbacks and a really rapid increase in deep poverty. Although there is a long way to go, I don’t think we should ever lose hope. I think, in fact, this is an important reminder why this work is so tremendously important. We can’t stop fighting to improve the quality of life for people living in poverty.  One of my friends is a congressman in the United States and he recently sent out an email with Dr. Martin Luther King’s message: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Are Community Benefits a roadmap for the future?

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That’s the idea behind groundbreaking new Community Benefits legislation that will help connect residents from priority neighbourhoods with apprenticeship and work opportunities on large infrastructure projects like Metrolinx’s Eglinton Crosstown transit line.


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

That means that in addition to building much-needed transit that connects communities, these projects can also provide pathways to better jobs, and more secure futures, for people living in poverty. This includes young people who face significant barriers to employment.

United Way was proud to play a key role in bringing this legislation to fruition by working with our partners—including Crosslinx, labour unions, the Toronto Community Benefits Network, the provincial government and the City of Toronto—to get the green light on this exciting initiative.

And at a recent Board of Trade summit, Premier Kathleen Wynne signaled her support to commit to local employment targets on the Eglinton Crosstown project.

We’re hopeful this will pave the way for scaling up career opportunities for young people who have faced barriers so that everyone can contribute and share in our prosperity.

Ask the Expert: What’s the best way to equip youth for the future?

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Christine Walsh
Associate Dean & Professor, Faculty of Social Work
University of Calgary

Christine Walsh is Associate Dean and professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary. She is considered a leading expert on vulnerable youth, including young people living in poverty. Her research interests include child and family health, Aboriginal health and individuals affected by social exclusion, poverty and homelessness. Prior to academia, she also worked as a clinical social worker at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont. Imagine a City spoke with Christine for our “Ask the Expert” series to understand the best way to equip youth for the future.

1. United Way is committed to ensuring the success of young people, particularly those youth who face ‘barriers.’ Describe some of these barriers.  

Vulnerable youth are those who face barriers that prevent them from achieving or maintaining well-being. They’re vulnerable because of personal, social and structural factors, such as a lack of family support, stable housing or access to education. These factors not only affect their physical and mental health, but greatly influence their ability to contribute to society.dsc_5334

2. What are some of the contributing factors to vulnerability?

Things like family breakdown, poverty, racism, violence, childhood trauma and physical and mental health issues are significant contributing factors to youth vulnerability. Newcomers or LGBTQ+ youth also experience many challenges including social isolation. These types of barriers make it extremely difficult for young people to excel in school, find stable employment or connect with their communities, making it much harder for them to succeed.

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3. Why is the transition from adolescence to adulthood often so difficult for young people who face barriers?

Transitioning from youth to adulthood is challenging for all young people, but it’s especially tough for those who face barriers such as poverty and different forms of violence. Attaining an education, entering the workforce and establishing financial independence are key components of becoming an adult. Unfortunately, many youth simply don’t have access to the supports they need to successfully transition into this life stage. To cope with these challenges, youth are vulnerable to high-risk behaviours like alcohol and drug use, which can lead to longer-term consequences such as becoming street-involved or even homeless. These long-term health issues can also have implications on our justice system and health and social services sectors.

4. Why is it so important to invest in youth during this critical transition period into independent adulthood?

Many of the decisions made, and the opportunities that are available or lacking during the transition into adulthood, have long-term impacts on a person’s future. That’s why it’s so important to address vulnerability during this time. If a young person lacks the supports they need to finish school, adequately prepare for the workforce or find affordable, stable housing, then that’s going to impact the rest of their life.dsc_6965

5. What are some of the best ways to support youth facing barriers to build brighter futures?

Community supports are one critical piece of helping young people thrive. These supports include things like mental health counseling, career workshops and mentorship programs that can enable young people to change trajectories, even helping them acquire the tools necessary to break the cycle of poverty. It’s these type of what we call ‘wraparound’ supports  that are so crucial to ensuring youth have access to the opportunities they need to build stable, secure futures. United Way plays an important role in this because it’s embedded in the community in a really profound way. Social supports offered by community-based organizations enable youth to make good decisions throughout the developmental process. Engagement is also extremely important when it comes to young people. When we engage youth in meaningful ways, they become active participants on a personal and community level.

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6. Why does youth success matter to communities at large?

Youth, including those who face barriers, have tremendous skills and potential. When we support them, we capitalize on their talent. These young people play a vital role in society because they’re the future of our communities. They are the ones who are going to be working and raising their families here. If we want safe, healthy, livable communities where every young person feels supported to build a better life, then we need to ensure we create the conditions that allow all youth to benefit and contribute in a multitude of ways.

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3 Reasons to step up (way up!) for our communities

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Will you be rising to the challenge at this year’s CN Tower Climb for United Way?

Before you lace up your sneakers, we thought we’d share a few tidbits about the CN Tower, and the awesome climbers and volunteers who step up year after year.

1. You’ll need to be quick: Think you’ve got what it takes to beat the fastest CN Tower climb time? Then be prepared to conquer roughly four steps a second! That’s right. The current record—undefeated since the 1989 CN Tower Climb for United Way—is a swift seven minutes and 52 seconds. That’s just over 222 steps a minute and over 20 minutes faster than the average climb time! Brendan Keenoy, a police officer, became the fastest person to climb the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere. A remarkable feat that has been standing tall for almost 26 years.

CN Tower2. Tall is an understatement: Just looking at the CN Tower can make your knees wobble. Built in 1976—just one year before the first CN Tower Climb for United Way—the Tower stands a whopping 553 metres (1,815 ft) high. That’s the equivalent of four Canadian football fields and almost 11 times as high as Niagara Falls! Keeping with the Canadian theme, the famous glass floor can also withstand the weight of 35 moose.

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But what’s even more amazing is the number of people who have climbed over the past 39 years in support of United Way—more than 238,000! Not to mention the 550 volunteers who attend each year to ensure that the climb is safe and fun. That’s a lot of people coming together for a common cause.

Particpants3. The calf burn is worth the reward: Since its inception, the CN Tower Climb for United Way has raised nearly 28 million! That’s a lot of money going toward building brighter futures for individuals and families, from the Toronto waterfront to the southern shore of Lake Simcoe. It’s true! Every step does change lives.

Registration is now open, so sign up today. You might just add to the legend at this year’s climb.

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.

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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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

Outdoor movie

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!

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.

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: 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.

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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.

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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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

 

Building futures through Community Benefits

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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.