A Word from an Agency

by Melise Brereton on May 11, 2023 Comments Off on A Word from an Agency

Four-legged therapists

United Way-supported program spreads the love and comfort of dogs to nursing home residents, hospital patients, students and others in need

Dogs – our best friends, and thanks to a national program supported by United Way, they can be there to help those in need.

The therapy dog program was established nationally in 1998 and has grown to involve 3,500 dogs spending 275,000 hours with residents in long-term care, hospital patients, children and students and even victims or witnesses in court cases. 

Interactions with dogs have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, calm nerves, and increase a sense of well-being. Canines even have the power to connect with people living with dementia or other conditions that drive isolation.

The agency’s therapy dog program is built entirely upon volunteer handlers who want to bring their furry friends out to community settings. But first, the dogs are extensively evaluated to ensure their temperament and training are suitable for the program. 

“Happy-go-lucky, friendly dogs who love to meet new people but can be calm while doing that are ideal,” says Jenn, who is a volunteer coordinator for the program in her region.

The dogs are of all breeds and run the gamut from tiny lap dogs to gentle giants.

The support from United Way “is absolutely incredible” and keeps the program running, says Jenn. It allows handlers and dogs to be outfitted in agency-branded gear that clearly indicate they are a therapy dog team. It also covers the costs of holding evaluation sessions.

Jenn had a golden retriever who loved to visit high school during exams so students could have “bark breaks.”

“You see these teenagers coming into the library, and they look so stressed and it’s like they’re in a different world. And then a dog goes up to them and puts their nose under their hands and they change to these joyful teenagers who are just so excited to see and pet these dogs. It’s just amazing the relaxation that they get from the dogs.”

In long-term care homes, it’s not uncommon for residents to tear up when the dogs arrive but that quickly changes to big smiles, says Jenn. 

Some residents don’t remember human names, but they remember the dog that’s come to visit. 

Dogs also sit alongside struggling young readers, helping them gain the confidence they need.

“We are proud of our program because it helps so many people,” says Lou, regional community service coordinator at the agency. “It’s that endorphin rush people get when they rub that belly, or scratch that ear, and that tail is wagging with so much force they can tell the love is there. That really is the magic to our program.”

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Melise BreretonA Word from an Agency

Fred’s Story

by Melise Brereton on May 11, 2023 Comments Off on Fred’s Story

Getting a second chance at life

Fred accessed life-changing community services to help on his journey to recovery

“Losing my house and my kids was probably the hardest thing. I lost everything.

Following an arrest, I realized I was an addict and needed help. 

At the time, every penny I was making was spent on drugs. I was getting up in the morning, and before I was even out of bed, I would have already used… that was just to start my day. It was really bad. 

I actually thanked the cops when they arrested me, because now it could stop. Now my life could change and I started the process of getting clean. 

When I found out about what United Way could do, I was sitting inside a methadone clinic. I was talking to someone on the phone, saying, “I’m going to lose everything. I’ve got nothing. I might as well be dead.” 

I got in touch to learn more about what the program could do to support my recovery. In my research, I found connections with a United Way-funded agency where I was placed into counselling and rehabilitation services. 

The rehabilitation program was probably the most life-changing thing that has ever happened for me. After my first session, I felt the weight on my shoulders had been lifted.

If the program hadn’t stepped in when it did, I probably wouldn’t be here. That’s huge for me. That changed my life in one phone call.  

With the support of those community services, I am proud to have never relapsed in the 14 years since I began my recovery journey. 

If you would have asked me [then] if I would be sitting here today, I would have laughed.

I’m 14 years sober, that’s a huge achievement. I never thought that would be possible. United Way made that possible. My life changed, and it wasn’t changed by my hands alone. The hands of United Way were huge for me. 

We are all one issue away from needing the help that these networks provide. The community as a whole needs the type of help that United Way invests in.  

Now, I share my story to let people know about the services that they support through donations, and how they make an impact.” 

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Melise BreretonFred’s Story

Sebastian’s Story

by Melise Brereton on May 11, 2023 Comments Off on Sebastian’s Story

Finding a New Home

Sebastian and his family are grateful for the help of an agency dedicated to ensuring newcomer youth and adults can thrive in Canada

As a newcomer, Sebastian found himself struggling in school and trying to learn English. Now, five years later, he is volunteering at the United Way-supported agency and serving as a leader to newcomers arriving today.

His family emigrated from El Salvador when Sebastian was seven.

“It was because of the state my country was in. It wasn’t the greatest in terms of safety. We were shot at one day when going to my grandma’s house, and I think that’s what led my parents to finally make the decision to immigrate.”

It wasn’t long before settling in their new neighbourhood that Sebastian’s mom learned about an agency that offered programs to help newcomer, racialized, and marginalized communities. The program helps people to thrive and succeed through mentorship, access to post-secondary education, professional skills development, entrepreneurship, sports and recreation.

Sebastian started playing soccer in the summer and then enrolled in a homework help program. 

He was still learning English and struggling with his schoolwork in Grade 5. 

“But thankfully I saw examples of older people at the agency who were volunteering and participating. I thought, ‘If they can do it, why can’t I do it?’”

So, how are his grades now? 

“Honestly, because of the agency, I have good grades. And I know how to ask for help when I am struggling.”

Sebastian has also taken part in a leadership program in which activities are led by youth for students in Grades 5 to 7 around communication, advocacy and teamwork. He also volunteers with the soccer program he once played in.

Sebastian’s little sister has also participated in soccer and art programs and received homework help. And now their mom is working in a local restaurant and will study culinary arts thanks to a scholarship through the agency.

“It’s a very friendly atmosphere. You can tell that the people there care about the community,” Sebastian says of the agency that has meant so much to his family.

He reflects on how far he’s come and how that shows up in pictures of him and his sister on their first day at the program compared to ones taken a couple of months ago.

“You can just tell that the program has been there for us that whole time.”

And now Sebastian wants to give back and be that model of success for young kids that he found. 

“When I saw the little kids at soccer I realized what an impact this program has. Every time I would show up they were just so happy. That’s a great feeling.”

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Melise BreretonSebastian’s Story

Valarie’s Story

by Melise Brereton on May 11, 2023 Comments Off on Valarie’s Story

A Helping Hand for Seniors

Valarie has found a sense of belonging and independence in new housing

“I started my relationship with the agency four years ago. I was attending a program to learn about computers and someone suggested I could have lunch at the senior’s centre in the same building as the school. 

I was served delicious lunches and was able to participate in activities. The centre gives seniors a sense of independence and a chance to have a social life. They make them feel important.

From there, I got help in finding more suitable seniors housing. I had been living in a group home setting.

I’ve been living on my own since August 2021, and I’m very happy with my apartment. I have privacy and I have supports in place. There is a tenant support worker who helps me when I need it. I also have the freedom to come and go as I like. It took me a while to adjust to being independent but I’m doing OK.

The only thing that I really don’t like is having to use a food bank.

But because of my housing situation and the budget that I’m on I need to use food programs.  They are very understanding and very approachable about issues as well, so it’s not only about food, I’m using the agency for moral support as well.

They’ve been fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about the agency. I’m really glad that United Way is supporting them. I’m really happy to be a spokesperson because I know that both agencies care about people.

The senior’s centre offers a sense of community and also a place where seniors are cared for. You walk in the door and it’s ‘Hi Valerie, how are you today?’ It’s like you’re part of the family.

I really appreciate the fact that there are agencies like this that are able to help seniors.

And I am really grateful for the food bank as well. If it weren’t for the food program, I don’t think I’d be quite as successful as I am today.

I still feel that I have something to give back to the community that has given me so much. Seniors have a lot to give.”

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Melise BreretonValarie’s Story

Alex’s Story

by Melise Brereton on July 14, 2022 Comments Off on Alex’s Story

Finding a place to call home

Alex says the confidence and independence she’s found living on her own has been life changing

“I never really had the greatest relationship with my parents and it kind of came to a head a couple of years ago where I just couldn’t live in the same house with them anymore. I just found it wasn’t good for my mental health and I wasn’t pursuing any goals in life.

About three years ago, someone I had been seeing as a support suggested linking me to this housing agency. The agency came into my life at a time of dire need. I was rock bottom and didn’t know where else to go. I figured I had nothing left to lose. I didn’t enjoy my life and decided I would do anything to change it, even though I hate change.

The support I have received has been the one constant in my life over the last few years. I have had to upset my life and start over but through every step, there was always someone beside me saying, ‘You’ve got this. We’re here to hold your hand but we’re not going to do it for you. If you fall, you fall. We will help you get up, but you have to learn how to do this.’

I’ve grown quite quickly. I was dragging my feet, for most of my life because I’ve always been afraid to get to the next stage and do the next thing. I’ve been too scared of change. And now, though change is still scary, I’m looking forward to it. I’m now wondering what else is out there and what’s next. And how do I get there faster.

Now I’ve found my dream job. Since I was 12 or 13, I’ve wanted to work in a school and now I’m working in my chosen field of developmental services as an educational assistant. I absolutely love it.

Independence and confidence are the perfect words to describe what I’ve gained. While living with my parents I didn’t have a lot of either. But I’ve been given the opportunity to learn. And getting the physical space from my parents helped regrow our relationship, which had been toxic. 

I watched my sister go through years of homelessness and shelters and group homes when she was just a teenager. She’s 27 now and she’s doing so much better but she didn’t have the supports I have had. I didn’t have to be homeless.

I was the younger sister, so I could do absolutely nothing for her but now I can do something for someone else and let them see that there are supports out there. That’s my main goal in sharing my story. Everyone needs help sometimes.”

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Melise BreretonAlex’s Story

AJ’s Story

by Melise Brereton on July 14, 2022 Comments Off on AJ’s Story

Getting on the right track

AJ struggled with mental health issues from the age of 9 or 10. It was only when he found United Way-funded supports that he got the help he needed.

“I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety at about nine or 10 years old. 

From my family’s perspective, it came out of left field. I was a really happy kid. I kind of just rolled with everything but then there was a sudden shift in my demeanor when I was just this ball of anxiety, which manifested in a lot of anger. My parents would just see the anger and not understand that there was anything else there. They didn’t have the skills or resources to deal with it. Even when my parents were trying to advocate for me, they got stonewalled.

A lot of my OCD is germ related. As my odd behaviour started and kids started to kind of give me a hard time about it, I think that’s where the social anxiety started to develop and then later the depression. I developed this feeling that I had to be perfect or I was going to fail. 

My parents took me to a whole bunch of doctors who didn’t listen to me at all. It was just very clinical. I kept ending up in hospitals because I was so unwell. 

I dropped out of high school and then I got fired from my job. My friendship situation wasn’t great because all my friends were moving on with their lives. I was treading water, if you can call it that.

When I was about 19, I went to emergency and they kept me for two days. After that, I went to a crisis house. They connected me with an organization and a youth worker. And right away, it was completely different.

She met me where I was at. She listened to me, she wasn’t telling me what to do, or imposing how I was supposed to be feeling. She just laid out all of my options. No one had ever told me I had options before, so all of a sudden I had this kind of control that I hadn’t had before. She told me to tell her what I wanted to do and she would help me do it.

She helped me settle back at home and to connect to services in her organization and in the community. It was the turning point that got me on the right track. 

I eventually did some self-esteem work and some youth peer support training. Through the youth training, I learned about harm reduction and safer sex and alcohol and drugs, so that I could give back to the community. That was really empowering because all of a sudden, I was in a position where I was being treated as capable. I’m studying film at college now. 

I have been through so many private facilities and doctors and therapists who just seemed really siloed. The United Way programs are more interconnected. It’s more like an ecosystem.

It’s not easy to ask for help and it’s not easy to get help. The more accessible it is, and the more options people have, the more likely they are to find something that fits for them.

I share my story in the United Way speakers bureau and with youth I work with because if I had been able to find that right person and right organization at an earlier point in my life, things may have been better. So it’s important to me to help people find the lifeline that I did.”

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Melise BreretonAJ’s Story

Community Donation Warehouse

by Melise Brereton on July 14, 2022 Comments Off on Community Donation Warehouse

Partnering to support community

The United Way community donation warehouse benefits agencies, program recipients and volunteers

A community donation warehouse is serving the needs of United Way agencies and their recipients through collecting and distributing much-needed goods, but also by providing volunteering opportunities to those in community programs who are looking to give back.  

The warehouse launched in early 2020 in partnership with local businesses and individuals looking to make in-kind donations.

A small portion of the items received are used for United Way community auctions that raise revenue for the community investment fund, but most are distributed to partner agencies to share with program recipients or to support agency operations. 

The warehouse collects, stores and distributes everything that frontline agencies may need to do their critical work, including housewares, cleaning supplies, hygiene items, bedding, arts and crafts supplies, toys and games, electronics and appliances, and sporting and outdoor items. It also played a key role in distributing personal protective equipment to agencies through the pandemic. 

The donation warehouse is located in the back of a community living agency that enriches the quality of life of more than 400 people with developmental and physical disabilities each year through employment supports, supportive living in 30 residential facilities and on-site and off-site programming. 

“We are so happy to partner with the United Way on space for sorting, storing and distributing donations,” said Emily at the agency. Not only does it help those in the community who benefit from the donated items, but it provides volunteering opportunities for those served by the community living agency.

“Many of our clients want to contribute and stay busy and get a sense of independence. Sending them out into the community during COVID has been difficult, but this is a safe, supportive environment.”

The hope is to eventually have other community living groups bring people to the warehouse to volunteer.

“It’s fantastic because it supports United Way in giving to the community and enriches the lives of our clients, too.”

The household provisions collected and distributed by the warehouse have been a valuable addition to the work of a local agency dedicated to youth mentorship, particularly for vulnerable populations. United Way funding is a key reason the agency can provide one-on-one and group supports to more than 2,000 young people each year.

“An opportunity like the community warehouse lets us expand our services to offer tangible goods to families in need that we support,” said Natalie at the agency. “Without the United Way and other community partners, we just don’t have the capacity to do that.”

Families who wish to take part in the United Way’s Holiday Helping Hand program provide a wish list broken down by age, gender and personal interest. 

In 2021, the program gave a Christmas to 20 families, a number that grows every year, says Natalie. Recipient families says that without that holiday support, there would be no presents under the tree.

“The halls around our office as we get closer to Christmas really do look like Santa’s workshop getting ready for Christmas Eve,” she says.

“Our team who work directly with the families tell me that it’s a really amazing time when the families actually come to pick up their holiday boxes. There are tears flowing when they actually see a pile of goods from strangers that are all for them. It’s just Christmas magic.”

Volunteers installed new heavy duty metal shelving and rebuilt some of the existing shelves to maximize the storage and organization within the two large bays of the warehouse.

Dimitri, who owns a carpentry business, agreed right away to lead the effort because he believes in the work of the United Way. 

Dimitri and a few others worked a total of about 60 hours on the project. 

The impact of the United Way and its funded agencies is important to Dimitri because he wishes he had had access to community programs when he was growing up.

“I am successful and life is good for me now and I want to help people who are struggling. Life should get better for everyone.”

Dimitri thinks about his volunteering in terms of the Boy Scout tradition of holding branches for those trekking behind.  

“It’s the same in life. We should all be thinking about what we can do help future generations and make it easier for them now.”

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Melise BreretonCommunity Donation Warehouse

Chaitra’s Story

by Melise Brereton on July 14, 2022 Comments Off on Chaitra’s Story

Building a village in Canada

First-time mother Chaitra found the supports she needed to raise her young son

My husband, son and I came to Canada in 2019 after immigrating to the U.S. from India. My son was born in the U.S. and my husband and I worked there for 10 years. But we were still waiting for our green card and we were tired of waiting. Becoming parents was a big milestone for us and we wanted to have one of us at home with our son for a year. Without a green card, if the working parent was laid off, we would have had to leave. So we decided to come to Canada. 

When we arrived in Canada, our son was about 15 weeks old. I would take him to the library and there I learned about EarlyON programs for babies. When we moved to a new town, I looked up EarlyON and found the agency.

Through a newcomer parents program, I came to know a lot of other parents. It’s been great for my son, because we’ve set up play dates and it’s helped me learn more about the community here. There are a lot of informative sessions for me and lots of learning experiences for my son. I’ve learned how to build learning into playing with him at home. 

As a first-time parent in the middle of COVID, I’ve questioned myself a lot about whether I’m exposing him to enough opportunities. The program has been extremely helpful in putting my mind at ease that I’m doing something right. I’ve seen my son develop at a rapid pace, especially when we could go to the centre, and he was surrounded by other kids. 

When we moved to Canada, we came with no social capital. You really need a village to raise a child, but we had no one. We have steadily built our own village. I now have other parents to get advice from or to vent to when I need it. My son is thriving, COVID or not.” 

The agency offers programming focused on child development, best parenting practices, play-based learning activities, educational guest speakers, relationship-building among families, and connections to community services.

Early in the pandemic, the agency shifted to virtual offerings including online coffee chats and outdoor educational programming. The agency even put together online learning kits for families to borrow to use at home to learn Spanish or yoga or do science and technology activities.

“We borrowed a learning kit to do yoga, which has really helped with some tantrums my son was having. So much thought has gone into those kits. We’ve also done some of the outdoor programs with an educator that have been great, too. 

I am waiting for COVID restrictions to ease so that we can have more of a social life and continue to build our network here. If it wasn’t for COVID, I think we would have been at the family centre every day. I tell everyone I can about what is available there.”

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Melise BreretonChaitra’s Story

Nira’s Story

by Melise Brereton on July 14, 2022 Comments Off on Nira’s Story

Putting down roots

United Way Halton & Hamilton’s new Investment Framework is bringing stability and flexibility to the critical social justice and equity work of frontline agencies

United Way Halton & Hamilton’s new Investment Framework is supporting the work of critical frontline agencies, including a long-time champion of women, girls, the gender diverse and 2S-LGBTQIA+Q2+ youth. 

The framework is built on a foundation of three funding streams – Seed, Feed and Root – that bring together stability, maintenance, innovation, and systems–level transformation. The framework focuses on priority areas of poverty, children and youth, and wellness and belonging. 

Its goals include the development of strategic planning, capacity-building and services that address root causes, and encouragement of collaboration and continuous improvement. 

Seed provides short-term, flexible, project-based, venture-style funding focused on social innovation. Feed is three-year funding for established programs that align with UWHH investment priorities.

Root is five-year funding for organizations seeking to strengthen their agency at the core. It provides agencies more time to plan, grow and scale to respond to community needs. Achieving Root funding is a highly selective process with strict eligibility requirements, including a proven track record of collaboration, improvement and performance, outcome evaluation, diversity of funding streams and system-level change.  

One social justice and equity agency that has been awarded Root funding has worked for well over a century to promote and protect the rights of girls and women, along with gender-diverse and 2S-LGBTQIA+Q2+ communities.

“Root funding gives us the opportunity to really fill in gaps in critical pieces of the social justice and equity work that we do that often doesn’t fit well into funding boxes or priorities,” said Medora, the agency’s director of operations. 

“That’s part of the marginalization and oppression that women and gender-diverse people have experienced, especially in racialized communities. United Way’s Root funding really gives us the opportunity to continue this important work so that we don’t have to compromise on service delivery.”

The stability of five-year funding allows for longer-term planning, better staff development and more effective capacity-building in areas of focus, says Medora, including supports for racialized communities, calls-to-action to address and eliminate racism, and advocacy for women facing precarious work. 

“As we plan to come out of this crisis situation, we need to be thinking about women differently and how much women bear the costs of inequity and how that needs to change.”

United Way Root funding also directly supports an after-school program in priority elementary schools, a peer-based post-partum program for vulnerable new moms, a food security and training program for women in transitional living facilities, and health and wellness activities for women experiencing poverty. 

United Way funding has allowed the agency to explore, create and test virtual programs and services that have proven vital during pandemic lockdowns, says Medora. As well, the agency has rolled out programs to maintain contact with those unable or unwilling to be online.

Root funding is also allowing for sustainable and dedicated resources for 2S-LGBTQIA+Q2+ youth. Flexibility in funding has allowed a peer-led program founded by 2S-LGBTQIA+Q2+ youth to shift from an in-person, activities-based focus to mental health and crisis-based interventions and supports. 

“This is an underserviced group and in the pandemic they are facing incredible vulnerability through isolation. Some are stuck at home with family they’re not out with or aren’t safe with and they can’t be their full self,” said Medora.

“It’s been very hard. Many young people just feel like there’s no hope, no end in sight and they’re so alone. We check in, one-to-one, whether on the computer or on the phone.”

Any 2S-LGBTQIA+Q2+ individual between 16 and 29 can sign up and a member of the team will message them once a week through social media or email.

Sometimes the chats are casual and light-hearted, but other times young people are talking about homelessness, unemployment and feelings of loneliness or isolation, says check-in program coordinator Nira. Where necessary, the check-in team links young people to mental health, housing and job supports, along with crisis interventions that are queer-affirming.

Whether or not they respond and start a conversation, the youth appreciate that someone is concerned about them, says Nira.

“There is comfort in knowing someone is looking out for you and thinking about you. This program is accessible and youth like it because they only have to share what they feel like sharing. Our numbers have grown through the pandemic.” 

Young people have said the program has been lifeline or a “soothing balm. People really, really rely on our programming and programs like us,” says Nira.

And some parents have reached out on behalf of their children to find people with shared lived experience they can connect with. 

“It’s been great knowing that there are parents out there who want their kids to be comfortable and be happy, and be who they are.”

The check-in program will continue after COVID recedes because not all queer youth can or will attend in-person events, says Nira. 

“It’s crucial that we continue to be here for them.” 

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Melise BreretonNira’s Story