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Organizations that feed the hungry, shelter women fleeing domestic abuse and support Indigenous communities can’t go on with business as usual this year, so they’ve had to get creative to keep donations flowing

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Isabella Internicola, a volunteer at the Parkdale Community Food Bank, packs food boxes on Dec. 9.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Parkdale Community Food Bank, Toronto

  • Who they help: Anyone who needs it
  • Percentage of budget from donations: 100 per cent
  • Change in donations during pandemic: Down slightly

When Kitty Raman Costa first photographed a can of aged President’s Choice chicken noodle soup earlier this year, her ambitions were modest.

“I just wanted to post it on Instagram as a way of saying, ‘Hey, guys, don’t donate stuff like this. It’s really old,’” said Ms. Costa, operations manager at Parkdale Community Food Bank.

Old is an inadequate descriptor. To be exact, the date on the bottom of the can was January, 2006.

Moments after the post, she got a short reply from one of the account’s followers, Oliver O’Brien: “I’ll eat it if your followers donate $10k.” With donations down and demand for food up by 50 per cent since the start of the pandemic, Ms. Costa didn’t take long to answer. “Ok done,” she responded. “I’ll grab it from the trash if ur down.”

They soon found that just as many followers were willing to donate to prevent Mr. O’Brien from having to slurp the ancient soup. Ms. Costa decided to split the donors into two teams – Team Eat and Team Don’t Eat. Whichever side raised the most cash would prevail.

Donations started pouring in from the likes of grocer No Frills ($5,000), sex-toy purveyor Pink Cherry ($5,000) and radio hosts Roz and Mocha ($2,000). In the end, Team Don’t Eat prevailed $20,893 to $16,128, for a grand total of $37,021.

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Kitty Raman Costa is operations manager with the Parkdale Community Foodbank.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

For an organization run by four staff and a small army of volunteers, the sum will go a long way at a time rife with challenges.

The food bank was built on a supermarket model to give clients as much personal choice as possible, but lockdown rules necessitated the launch of pre-order and delivery programs. With funding from the United Way, the team now delivers 200 shipments a week to clients who are self-isolating due to COVID-19.

The biggest problem on the horizon is space. With upwards of 3,000 people visiting every month, the 1,500 square-foot facility barely fits all the necessary food. “We’ve had to completely re-imagine our program to suit COVID,” Ms. Costa said. “We expanded our programming so much we definitely need a bit more room.”

– Patrick White

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Executive director Jason Mercredi arranges merchandise in his office at Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon. Prairie Harm Reduction is Saskatchewan's first supervised consumption drug-use site.Liam Richards/The Globe and Mail

Prairie Harm Reduction, Saskatoon

  • Who they help: People who use drugs; people with complex mental-health needs; people living with, or at risk of, HIV
  • Percentage of budget from donations: Typically 6 per cent overall; 100 per cent for supervised drug-use site
  • Change in donations during pandemic: Up; most successful year to date

Jason Mercredi and his team at Prairie Harm Reduction had already finished construction on what would be Saskatchewan’s first supervised consumption drug-use site when they learned that they would not be receiving funding to operate it.

The organization, which receives the majority of its funding from the province, had asked for $1.3-million to open the seven-booth injection site and smoking room, which seemed long overdue given Saskatchewan’s high HIV transmission rate and record overdose deaths.

But the province turned down the request in March. No matter, Mr. Mercredi said, “Nothing was stopping us from opening this site.”

Over the next few months, Prairie Harm Reduction ramped up fundraising efforts. Its annual AIDS Walk brought in $20,000 more than its previous record high. The community, learning of the organization’s setback, quickly rallied. A high-end Italian restaurant, a thrift store, a donut shop, a tattoo parlour and a pizza place all donated proceeds. A local filmmaker and producer helped create a polished, four-minute commercial introducing the site, free of charge. It featured a local police inspector, a family physician and the owner of the Italian restaurant expressing support.

At the same time, the organization launched an online clothing store, selling mugs, blankets, T-shirts and bunnyhugs – hoodies, to non-Saskatchewanians – emblazoned with harm-reduction slogans and sketches by local tattoo artists who were out of work because of the pandemic. A second run of merchandise, which included artwork from two Métis artists, featured tarot-card designs with dual meanings to represent how things are, and how they could be.

“They nailed it,” Mr. Mercredi said of the artists. “We sold out in six hours.”

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The Prairie Harm Reduction facility on Saskatoon's 20th Street West.Liam Richards/The Globe and Mail

In all, the organization raised about $65,000 – enough to open the site in October, with some modifications. Instead of being open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the site welcomes visitors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays only. Instead of two staff paramedics, it has one, at the cost of $60,000. Several support staff also work at the site.

The province has provided harm reduction supplies, including naloxone kits, syringes and pipes.

Mr. Mercredi says he has essentially turned into a full-time fundraiser, working one full-time job within another.

“We’re doing better than we ever have, for fundraising,” he said. “But staff are getting COVID fatigue, overdose fatigue, HIV fatigue. Staff are burnt out.

“Government’s going to have to pony up eventually, because this should be a government service, honestly.”

– Andrea Woo

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Sarah Schwendemann and Immaculate Nabisere label bags at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba's office in Winnipeg.SHANNON VANRAES / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

IRCOM, Winnipeg

  • Who they help: Recent immigrants, mainly government-assisted refugees
  • Percentage of budget from donations: Roughly 50 per cent
  • Change in donations during pandemic: More individuals have donated, but dollar value consistent

First there was one call, then another, then several. Tenants spread across two buildings in downtown Winnipeg who’d received their weekly food-hamper delivery were trying to figure out what to do with the tins of tomatoes.

Most tenants were refugees from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia and had never seen food packaged in such containers – and had no idea how to extract it.

Before COVID-19, the response would’ve been simple: One of the 290 volunteers or 50 or so staff with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) would have paid a visit to these refugees’ apartments, stood beside them in the kitchen, and demonstrated how to use a can opener.

But since the pandemic hit, almost all those volunteers have been dismissed for safety reasons and staff have switched over to delivering settlement services virtually.

It was a difficult pivot for the non-profit. Literacy skills, money management, after-school tutoring and more have always been easier to teach when sitting beside clients.

After lockdown began, IRCOM’s operations manager, Sarah Schwendemann, tried to determine the most pressing needs of her clients, most of whom live in two apartment buildings operated by the organization for their first few years in Canada before transitioning to more permanent housing.

With schools closed, families had to figure out virtual learning for their kids. “All of a sudden, we have huge families of like six to eight children on mom’s cellphone trying to do all their classes,” Ms. Schwendemann said. “It was a tremendous gap that we found right away.”

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Zebiaba Ibrahim volunteers at IRCOM in Winnipeg.SHANNON VANRAES / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

IRCOM immediately directed funds toward building up their technology library, so families could access Chromebooks to get through the rest of the school year. They also beefed up language support, so that when clients had questions about anything from how to apply for government benefits to how to submit their children’s homework digitally, they could comfortably ask the question over the phone in their first language since in-person visits to IRCOM’s offices – where staff wore personal protective equipment and spoke through glass – were harder to conduct.

The other major challenge newcomers faced was food insecurity. Many relied on food banks, and some of the local ones had closed temporarily. IRCOM staff began delivering hampers in head-to-toe PPE.

When the confused calls came in about the canned tomatoes, the Chromebooks Ms. Schwendemann’s team had distributed served a new purpose: life-skills workers video-conferenced with clients to help them find a can opener in their kitchen, showed them how to use it, and then watched as some of the newcomers showed off their new skill – while others had a simpler request.

“Some families have just asked to stop receiving canned goods altogether,” Ms. Schwendemann said with a laugh.

–Dakshana Bascaramurty

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Galen Halverson, a volunteer at Santropol Roulant in Montreal, delivers meals for the first time to elderly clients by bicycle.Christinne Muschi /The Globe and Mail

Santropol Roulant, Montreal

  • Who they help: People who have reduced autonomy, mostly seniors
  • Percentage of budget from donations: Nearly 44 per cent from individuals, foundations, the United Way or events
  • Change in donations during pandemic: Individual donations are up 50 per cent

They adopted masks early, revamped their kitchen staffing and tweaked how they delivered food. But their big concern was remaining in touch with their elderly charges.

Santropol Roulant started as a meals delivery initiative in Montreal and later expanded into a community food hub, though its work was always more than just about supplying food.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the organization known as “Le Roulant,” challenging staff and volunteers in their efforts at breaking the isolation of older people.

Roulant started in 1995 when two waiters at the bohemian Café Santropol took kitchen leftovers to feed their elderly neighbours.

The organization now includes a farm and a store selling frozen meals, but its core activity remains delivering affordable food to older people with reduced autonomy who have been referred by nurses, doctors or social workers.

The delivery crews are in effect caregivers who ease the loneliness of seniors during their visits and alert health professionals if they notice a person is unwell.

When the pandemic began, “we had to react very quickly in the spring. We had little knowledge about the virus’ transmission mode. We were working with a vulnerable population,” Roulant executive director Pier Liné recalled.

To keep distances in the kitchen, the regular complement of a cook and six or seven volunteers was replaced by a smaller but equally productive crew of four paid staffers. This also protected the volunteers, who are often older.

The meals now have to be dropped at the doorsteps. “Unfortunately they can’t go indoors to deliver anymore. It’s really heartbreaking,” said Roulant communications coordinator Jean-François Veilleux.

Instead, the volunteers make “care calls” to keep in touch with the clients. The oldest food recipient is 103 years old. “She’s still in good health and clear-minded,” Mr. Veilleux said.

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Jean-Francois Veilleux, communications coordinator of Santropol Roulant, prepares meals for delivery at their community food hub.Christinne Muschi /The Globe and Mail

The program used to deliver 80 to 100 meals a day; now it’s up to 130.

The store closed. Instead of selling the frozen food, Roulant is donating 80 to 120 meals each week to other charities.

Because of the pandemic, this year’s spending rose to $1.5-million, from $1.2 million.

Roulant is funded mainly through government subsidies and donations from the United Way, philanthropic foundations and individual donors. Personal donations have increased by 50 per cent and the United Way supplied extra federal emergency funds. But Mr. Liné wonders if that can be sustained.

Roulant is getting more money because it is expected to feed more seniors affected by pandemic restrictions. But in fact those clients were already in need, Mr. Liné said. “These were people who already had hip problems, who had mental-health issues, who lived too far from the grocery store, who were isolated. The people who already had a solid support network, they didn’t need meals-on-wheels, they had relatives to bring food.”

Roulant now has to decide whether to maintain the higher volume of activity it assumed during the pandemic.

Mr. Liné said he is worried that people will wrongly think “that once the virus is gone these folks will be able to go back to the grocery store, that they have relatives who’ll appear out of the blue to bring them food.”

–Tu Thanh Ha

Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund

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Mary and Constance Willier lead a food preservation program at an emergency women’s shelter in Sucker Creek, Alta., that benefited from the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund.HANDOUT

  • Who they help: Indigenous-led or Indigenous-serving organizations
  • Percentage of budget from donations: 100 per cent
  • Change in donations during pandemic: An emergency response program has raised $7.5-million

When the pandemic hit in March, Indigenous philanthropists Victoria Grant and Wanda Brascoupé knew Indigenous communities could help each other during a time of vulnerability.

Ms. Grant, an Anishinaabe woman, is a founding board member of the Circle of Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, and Ms. Brascoupé, who is Kanien’keha and Anishinaabe, is a former executive director of the Circle (as it’s known). Established in 2011, the Circle provides guidance for Indigenous communities and groups interested in obtaining philanthropic resources and grants. Soon after the pandemic hit, the two women formed the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund to help collect and deliver emergency funding to Indigenous communities.

Given the pressing need, the IPRF teamed up with the Community Foundations Canada network to get the funds flowing quickly to organizations that may not qualify for registered non-profit status. (This blocks them from accessing most funds from major foundations, private corporations and government sources.) The money is presented to recipients as “gifts” or “bundles,” rather than grants.

To ensure the fund would be Indigenous-led for Indigenous-led groups and organizations, the IPRF put together an advisory council of 10 Indigenous people with philanthropic knowledge and experience. Since April, the IPRF has raised $7.5-million and has completed six intakes of applications, approving 72 out of 200 from across Canada. Turnaround time for applications is about two weeks and projects and initiatives range between $5,000 to $30,000.

The IPRF says applications have shown Indigenous communities are prioritizing food sovereignty/security, mental health and connectivity.

One of the recipients, the Mittima Food Bank Society, a non-profit organization in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, is providing gas, ammunition and fuel for hunting groups as part of their harvester food share support program, which distributes wild game and fish such as salmon to households.

Another recipient, an emergency women’s shelter in Sucker Creek, Alta., is providing honorariums to elders and other knowledge keepers to teach skills such as food preservation and moccasin-making to its clients.

Eliminating the extensive paperwork and cumbersome reporting typically required for charitable grants, the concept of bundles and gifts for recipients was fundamental to establishing a process based on Indigenous philanthropic knowledge.

“We trust [the recipients] because we’ve lived it, we know it, we’ve experienced it,” Ms. Brascoupé said. “We know what it’s like to give, you know, $5 for gas to take somebody into town and recognize that that’s, you know, a collaborative way of living and working together.”

To reach the communities and groups most affected, the application process needed to be simple and personal with limited, if any, reporting requirements, said Ms. Brascoupé and Ms. Grant. Applicants can submit requests by video or phone and approved funds are unencumbered by follow-up paperwork.

The IPRF calls the support of non-Indigenous donors, both individual and corporate, a “fiduciary allyship” toward reconciliation.

–Willow Fiddler

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Sandy Watson-Moyles, executive director of the Three Oaks Foundation, will often work out of her car instead of her home to take confidential calls related to her work with the local women's shelter.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Three Oaks Foundation, Belleville, Ont.

  • Who they help: Women and children experiencing violence
  • Percentage of budget from donations: 20 per cent of emergency shelter’s base operating expenses; 100 per cent of second-stage shelter’s
  • Change in donations during pandemic: Individual donations appear to be up

Sandy Watson-Moyles has spent many of 2020′s cold winter mornings idling in the driveway of her eastern Ontario home. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, her grey Hyundai Kona has become her de facto office – one of the few places she can escape to, to take the confidential calls she receives as executive director of her local emergency women’s shelter.

The pandemic has forced the shelter to cut its 16 beds to seven. It’s a necessary reduction for physical-distancing purposes, but one taking place at the same time that intimate-partner violence rates are spiking across the country.

It’s been a year of pivoting and thinking outside the box for the Three Oaks Foundation as it scrambles to move services online. In some ways, Ms. Watson-Moyles been surprised by how successful that transition has been.

For example, some clients have found virtual counselling sessions to be convenient, she said, because they no longer have to arrange child care or transportation in order to access the service. But Ms. Watson-Moyles knows there are other women who fall through the cracks because they are stuck at home with their hawk-eye abusers, unable to reach out. Those are the women she worries about most, as communities across the province continue to follow the Greater Toronto Area into a second lockdown.

The organization has also been forced to move fundraising campaigns and events online. In a typical year, roughly 20 per cent of the emergency shelter’s base operating expenses must be covered through fundraising and donations. And the eight-unit second-stage shelter (which houses women for longer stays of up to a year at a time) is funded almost entirely out of pocket. In total, that usually means raising roughly $156,000.

“And that’s the break-even,” Ms. Watson-Moyles said. “It’s a small amount of money when you look at some of the Toronto shelters that are raising in the millions, but we don’t have that population base to raise [money] from.”

While fundraising revenue is down, she has been heartened to discover that individual and corporate donations are actually up.

“I was shocked that there was even dollars available to donate, because so many people have been impacted [by the pandemic]. Their livelihood, you know, any disposable income – for many people, that’s gone.” For example, she was touched when a local women’s group reached out to let her know they’d pooled their money together to supply the shelter with gift cards for the holiday season.

“You know, individually it might be $10 or $15, but collectively, they’re going to be able to give us over $300 in gift cards, [which is] incredible. So, you know, has it been the best year? No, but it’s not been as [bad] as we thought it was going to be.”

–Molly Hayes

More: Charity in action

The Yonge Street Mission in Toronto says demand for its food bank and hot meals has risen by 196 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Globe and Mail took a look at how they've implemented new measures to protect staff and clients.

The Globe and Mail

Editor’s note: This version has been updated to correct the title for Ms. Brascoupé.

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