“The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.” — quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi
Just as the Covid-19 pandemic is a viral war against humanity’s survival, people like Trisha Robinson and Mary MacKeigan are the charitable warriors all small towns need right now to ensure we come out better and stronger than ever.
Robinson is Executive Director of the Wilmot Family Resource Centre (WFRC), while MacKeigan is Fund & Program Developer, as well as the Volunteer Coordinator.
Neither one of these ladies has any intention of letting the pandemic get the upper hand in their community.
Robinson says that since the shutdowns in early March due to Covid-19, their entire focus has been on how to deal with this strange, new situation and how to continue helping everyone they serve through programs and services in the surrounding communities. Robinson says she has lain awake many nights thinking about the plight of her friends and neighbours – about isolated seniors, youth needing help with schooling and employment, families breaking down with domestic issues, food insecurity and so much more – and worrying about how they are doing and trying to come up new solutions to address as many needs as possible.
The challenges are often numerous and stressful, she says, but – instead of causing any sort of surrender in the community – the pandemic seems to have fortified the collective wills of volunteers, staff and the entire community at large. That, says Robinson, is the essence of small towns.
“Right now, I believe, we are doing the best work of our lives,” she says, “Sure, it’s extremely stressful now but we’ve had to rise above all that and continue on because people need help now more than ever.”
That need is constantly on their minds, from the 500 volunteers and 25 staff at WFRC.
In the early days of the shutdown, Robinson says they spent countless hours, day and night, reaching out to people, calling them on the telephone just to ask how they are doing, what they need and how could they help.
Help Needed More than Ever During Covid-19
Many, she says, are dealing with mental health issues – some exacerbated by the loneliness and isolation caused by the pandemic. Family violence, she says, is also a concern during this time when families are locked down in close quarters over a long period of time.
Robinson talks about the spirit of generosity and giving she sees daily from the community and finds it inspiring to say the least.
She is visibly emotional when she recalls stories about the incredible selflessness of some people and their giving spirit.
“One senior lady was celebrating her 80th birthday recently and she came to our office with some money and donated it to the WFRC. She said she wanted it to go to some family in need.
Other tales of untold generosity abound in this community and it is what keeps them going they say.
“We have so many stories of people caring that are so truly amazing,” Robinson says, “and there are so many stories like that one. The people here are just inspiring to us.”
“If we can get through this, we can get through anything,” she says.
Robinson, who has been with the WFRC for 30 years, says Covid-19 has had the opposite effect of beating down the community:
“In fact, I think it has forced us to do some of the best work of our lives right now. We just can’t stop thinking about it, about their well-being whether it’s their mental health, food shortages, or concerns with youth.”
There is really is a ring of truth to the old sentiment that small-town communities are unique when it comes to caring, sharing and helping one another.
“There is so much heart in this community,” says MacKeigan. “It is so inspiring and energizing to see how our local friends and neighbours respond in this time of need. There are times when we’re almost overwhelmed by it.”
Forty Years of Helping Friends and Neighbours Continues
It is sadly ironic that, just as the pandemic has increased the need for their services, it has also presented numerous challenges to exactly how those services are going to be delivered to those in need, challenges which require a different mindset and a resolve to get it done no matter what.
This year, Wilmot Family Resource Centre (WFRC) marks 40 years of helping families around Wilmot and Wellesley townships. The celebrations for now will have to wait however, until life returns to some semblance of a new normal.
No doubt, more people are out of work – either temporarily laid off or let go permanently. That means more people need financial help, employment counselling, help with supporting and raising families, rent payments, groceries and so much more. There is the inherent isolation from lock-downs, not to mention the usual isolation for many seniors in rural areas already, many of whom don’t even have Internet access. Then there is the underlying issue of family violence that can only get worse in close quarters during the lock-down.
“Right now, there is no connection for many of those people to the outside world” says Robinson. “It is so important to stay connected with those people.”
There are issues with food insecurity to worry about and concerns with youth and how to continue delivering much-needed programs to them at this time.
The Day the World in Small-town Canada Stood Still
Mary MacKeigan says the first real sign of things to come was when the WFRC was anticipating the start of its annual March Break Camp for youth from March 13-15.
“The day before it happened everything was shut down,” says MacKeigan. “It all happened really fast.”
MacKeigan says staff and volunteers had to quickly learn how to be nimble and flexible in offering something of value to those youth.
“Everyone came in on the Sunday and we kept in close communication with the Township to work out all the details to provide something virtual,” she says.
Food insecurity was another major issue to resolve around the virus. In fact, MacKeigan says the need for help from the Food Bank has already increased by 30 percent since just last January alone and the pandemic will surely bring that number higher as time goes on, especially in the event of a second wave of the Corona virus.
“We had Covid-19 protocols in place and isolated all our food donations” she says. “We made sure everything we gave out was first quarantined and then we sanitized the carts we left outside for pick-up.”
In years past, as now, the WFRC, with help from the Food Bank of Waterloo Region, has delivered hundreds of food hampers to more than 400 people in the community who need emergency food assistance. In 2018, for instance, the WFRC Lunch Crunch program ensured that 90 local children were supplied with healthy meals. Their Christmas Hamper Program also matches community sponsors with an individual or family – confidentially – to more than 400 families and neighbours.
Suffice to say, Robinson and MacKeigan also have a lot on their own plates to worry about during these uncertain times but Robinson is committed to ensuring the Christmas program will continue one way or another. It’s just one of the things, she says, that keeps her awake at night, figuring out logistics and new ways to do things to help those in need around the community.
They’ll Get By with a Little Help from their Friends
Meanwhile, MacKeigan is happy to report that the WFRC now has a new van for making all those necessary deliveries to the surrounding community.
MacKeigan had already started the push to get funding for the van long before Covid-19, she says, but now it has become more important than ever with food and supply deliveries.
MacKeigan says the van is just one more example of the generosity and giving spirit in the community from friends and business owners alike.
The Harold Ballard Foundation donated the first $10,000 for the van, followed by an Expressway Ford donation of $2,000 in 2019. Next, a successful capital grant for $23,000 was received from the Federal Government’s Local Food Infrastructure Fund.
“Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit us and we didn’t think we could raise the rest of the funds needed to purchase the van through the capital campaign we launched in early 2019” says Robinson. “TLC Pet Foods, a local company founded and owned by Erik Kuttis, also offered to donate the remaining funds and more. TLC donated more than $10,000 which enabled the agency to complete the purchase of the vehicle. ”
The goal of the agency is to increase access to food by offering more rural deliveries, and to increase resource efficiencies.
“For example,” says MacKeigan, “what used to take two staff and two cars to pick up or deliver goods and supplies, would now take only one.”
All good news, especially since the Food Bank’s distribution centre is also in lock-down.
Upcoming New Horizons Program for Seniors
Pretty much everything is virtual right now with some exceptions, including a new program for seniors, called New Horizons. WFRC received a grant from the Federal Government’s New Horizons for Seniors program that looks to engage seniors of all ages and older adults in activities and projects, and building new connections.
WFRC is the lead agency that developed and submitted a grant application for a local project on 2019. The grant request was successful and they recently received $24,740 to get started. The WFRC hosts the project and provides administrative and project support. There is, as well, a committee of seniors and older adults who lead the project.
As MacKeigan says, “A few older volunteers I talked to last year thought they would like events that were held bi-weekly for the purposes of learning something new, asking questions of a speaker, and sharing their thoughts afterwards.”
“They also wanted an opportunity to meet informally (every other week) to talk about more personal things that concern aging, such as downsizing and how it feels, for example). One of the volunteers imagined ‘coffee house chats’. So, it is called: Coffee House Talks: Learn, Share, Create”
Although the goal of this project hasn’t changed, the Coffee House Talks (CHT) Committee knows it has to do things differently because of the pandemic. They began meeting in May to discuss what they might be able to accomplish given the pandemic situation.
They held two “Lawn Landings” to test out a new way to provide an activity,” says MacKeigan, “while they make a few new connections and gather ideas for future activities that can be done safely. They called these Lawn Landings because the objective is to set up outdoor activities that they could take anywhere as a way to outreach to seniors of all ages – to any backyard.”
The group’s next goal is to host a number of indoor learning events, depending on whether they can secure the space and that pandemic safety guidelines can be followed). The group is also planning a Facebook page in the near future.
MacKeigan says the organization is also working on plans to keep their largest annual fundraiser – the Poor Boy’s Luncheon – alive for corporate sponsor donations, which help fund multiple WFRC programs.
“This is a great way for community to support WFRC this September,” MacKeigan says.
The Luncheon has been held annually on the 4th Thursday of September since 1994, won’t happen the same way this year, of course. More details on the fundraiser will be forthcoming once they are finalized, but for now, it appears the event will be virtual like many other events during the pandemic.
For now, Covid-19 may appear to have the upper hand but WFRC continues to work tirelessly, brainstorming for new ways to offer an deliver the same programs, whether it’s in-person when possible or virtually.
Either way, the commitment, the heart and the emotion is all there and the future looks hopeful:
“We’re all on the same level,” she says, “And yes, we will find a way.”
Wilmot Family Resource Centre offers numerous other services, events and programs to help seniors, youth, and the most needy in the community. For more information, visit https://wilmotfamilyresourcecentre.wordpress.com.