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Community Builders: Meet these remarkable community contributors


As COVID-19 continues to impact our communities, it has become increasingly important to recognize the everyday heroes who have shown incredible support for our community during a time of great uncertainty. 

Earlier this summer, in collaboration with Apt613, we sent a call for nominations to honour some local volunteers who stepped up in this time of need. Together, we recognized five outstanding COVID Heroes with Community Builder Awards to honour the incredible work they did to support their communities and the most vulnerable within them throughout the pandemic.

With so many incredible community builders to choose from, we decided to celebrate eight more remarkable individuals for their unwavering support to their community in these challenging times—all made possible by our trusty sponsors, Calian Group and 2Keys.

These Community Builders were recognized for their exceptional contributions to Ottawa. They have demonstrated quiet heroism in ways both big and small—helping so many during these very challenging times. Thanks to them, people across our region can feel connected, nourished, comfortable, encouraged, safe, involved, and heard. We thank all who took the time to nominate these everyday heroes.

Arielle Contreras

When COVID-19 hit, Arielle Contreras looked for ways to combat the social isolation many seniors in her Ottawa community were feeling. To meet those needs, Arielle developed Letters to Elders, a program she runs and organizes all by herself. 

The program collects letters from local community members and Arielle hand delivers them to seniors living in long-term care facilities in Ottawa. She coordinates with four specific long-term care homes and has letter writers take pictures of their letters and then send them to her for distribution.

“Seeing the care and kindness and warmth poured into each of the letters we’ve received has been so very very heartwarming.”

Arielle has received an overwhelming positive response from the local community with more than 90 letters delivered to date! Not only does Arielle’s program help the seniors who receive them, it’s also provided people in our region who are looking for a way to give back to share love and kindness at a time of great uncertainty. 

Arielle’s program has brought her community together during a time when remaining connected to the community is most important. She is passionate and dedicated to inclusion of all community members. 

Thanks to Arielle, countless seniors across Ottawa don’t have to feel as though they are alone.

Sylvain de Margerie

Sylvain de Margerie has volunteered in his community for more than 10 years and is a relentless advocate for his community. Back in 2018, Sylvain approached the Carlington Community Health Centre for his idea to create an internet cafe at the Bellevue Community Centre, to foster community cohesion and provide internet services for local youth and families. 

The café also provides community members with a space to seek employment opportunities and training as well as free healthy snacks, all prepared by volunteers. After almost a year of operation, the café has proven successful amongst community members, volunteers, and staff alike, and efforts are now underway to keep it running.

When COVID-19 hit, Sylvain knew the cafe had to close, but he still wanted to find a way to help. Sylvain and his team were able to repurpose food used for the Food For Thought cafe to feed residents of the Travelodge Hotel, which housed a number of families requiring shelter services. With the success of this endeavor, Sylvain approached the Community Foundation of Ottawa and asked for the funds for the cafe to be redirected to support their COVID-19 response, allowing the team to pivot and continue to provide meals for those in need.

Using his existing contacts, Sylvain approached local chefs and restaurateurs and pivoted his previous project to develop a meal program for the most vulnerable. With his team’s support, Sylvain has delivered more than 65,000 hot meals to people in need across the city. 

Sylvain and his team have demonstrated their adaptability in the face of crisis in order to serve the city’s most vulnerable. Sylvain says the next step for his team is to create a resilient and enduring service for people that cannot cook—ensuring that his services go well beyond COVID-19.

Nathalie Maione

In 2005, after hearing about young families struggling to furnish their homes, Nathalie Maione began Helping with Furniture (HWF). HWF is a registered charity with over 200 volunteers who work around the clock to make sure young families can live comfortably in their new homes. 

For more than 15 years, Nathalie and her team have served vulnerable communities in Ottawa by ensuring that they have a comfortable and cozy home that promotes success and well being in their day to day lives.

When COVID-19 hit, Nathalie’s work changed dramatically, but that did not stop her from getting furniture to families. Although Nathalie had to make the difficult decision to halt operations with volunteers in mid-March, she continued solo—driving a Penske truck every week to collect donations and store them in the HWF warehouse.

“There are a lot of behind the scenes things that have to happen for families to receive their furniture, it takes a lot of coordination with the rest of the community.”

Nathalie has continued to collect furniture throughout the crisis and safely prepares it for families—collecting everything from gently used furniture to children’s toys. Since she can’t deliver furniture without volunteers, she has come up with a new system where families come to HWF and pick up their items with borrowed transportation, sometimes making 5 trips to make it all fit.

Nathalie has continued her volunteer work all while working a full-time job at Rockcliffe Park Public School. Her belief is that everyone deserves a furnished home, and her devotion to vulnerable people in her community makes her an obvious community builder.

Allison Brown

Allison Brown has been an extremely active volunteer for the Canadian Red Cross and Girl Guides of Canada for many years. Since the start of the pandemic, she doubled her efforts to help both organizations working as an Emergency Response Team Supervisor and Digital Volunteer for the Canadian Red Cross as well as a Unit Guider and facilitator for the Leading Lones program with the Girl Guides of Canada. 

In her volunteer role at Canadian Red Cross, Allison monitors social media channels to assist people experiencing emergency situations to ensure they receive the help they need. She also drafts educational articles and social media copy that provides updated and reliable information about emergency preparedness and safety in a COVID-19 world. 

With Girl Guides of Canada, Allison participates in the Leading Lones program—a remote/virtual unit that brings Guiding to girls who may be unable to access regular meetings due to illness or other circumstances. 

Since the pandemic halted Guiding altogether, Allison has applied this adapted, online model of Guiding to ensure all youth can stay safe at home yet still connected to their friends and peers, and continue to increase their skills in communication, team building, time management.

“I’m very fortunate that we have over 300 adult volunteers in the East Ontario and Western Quebec area that are committed to bringing Guiding to youth this September—like we always would. There are a lot of adaptations and safety precautions but we are making sure that we are providing a positive focus for youth and adults during this time.”

Allison has given a great deal of herself to help others in this challenging time, and has been a great role model and community supporter for the youth and adults she volunteers with.

Danika Brisson

During a pandemic, it is more important than ever to ensure that our communities feel supported and taken care of—something Danika Brisson is very familiar with. As one of the primary organizers for Overbrook Community Cares, she has helped to fill the gaps for vulnerable neighbours in accessing essential services all across her community. 

Overbrook Community Cares was developed as an extension of the Overbrook Community Association Safety Committee. Thanks to the program, Danika and her team have provided many services for the Overbrook community, from food and household goods deliveries to loneliness supports for anxious neighbours and seniors with disabilities. She has spent countless hours on the phone with vulnerable community members, listening to their needs and figuring out ways to best serve them.

“This project has highlighted needs that were already there in the community but are much clearer now. There’s a lot of conversation about ‘how do we end these projects’ but we realized these needs are not going away and they were in some ways made more evident through COVID-19.”

Ableism, ageism, and poverty were not halted by COVID-19—if anything these issues were exacerbated. It’s for those reasons, Danika has made herself a connector, facilitator, and developer for her local community, ensuring they have the resources they need. Danika prioritizes communities whose voices are absent, and insists on practices that create accessibility for people who are often forgotten. Danika is a true light for her community.

Mélanie Stafford

Mélanie Stafford is a thought leader in our community, and she conceptualized the Overbrook Community Cares project to protect the most vulnerable in her community. 

Working closely with Danika, this project brought neighbours together to help and support one another, and Mélanie does the labour-intensive work of connecting with people to understand their perspective and lift them up.

As the conceptual leader for Overbrook Community Care, Mélanie has produced the media material, arranged program logistics, and worked tirelessly to get the project off the ground. She can always be seen with her phone in hand, taking calls at all hours of the day, working closely with fellow neighbours to make Overbrook Community Care a success. Mélanie says that the Overbrook community already knew how to take care of each other even before the pandemic, but she had the pleasure of facilitating and organizing the ways her community could step up and lend a helping hand during these trying times.

Mélanie has a community first approach and always scopes a project beforehand to ensure that no inadvertent harm is being done to the community. She has a clear understanding of help versus hinder and continues to make her community a top priority. Since the start of the pandemic—thanks to her hard work and dedication, hundreds of people in her community have received weekly meal and grocery deliveries, phone calls from neighbours if they are sick or isolated, and assistance with financial aid applications.

Michelle Fleming

Michelle Fleming works as a Knowledge Broker at the Ontario Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation in Long-Term Care at Bruyère, where she is responsible for finding the best tangible ways to implement long-term care and seniors-based research. When the pandemic hit, she saw first-hand the effect it had on clients and colleagues. 

As someone who works closely with long-term care home residents and their support workers, she immediately sought out ways to help lighten the effects of COVID-19.

To boost morale and provide support, Michelle’s initiative, Kid Art with Heart, asks children all across the city to draw uplifting and encouraging art for patients and employees of long-term care homes. Each week, Michelle would post a different theme in the Facebook group for participants to create and be inspired with. Michelle then drives around the city to pick up the art pieces from each family’s porch and delivers them to long-term care facilities around the city.

“This initiative has been a labour of love, and for me it offered an opportunity for quiet reflection on those drives across the city picking up art – as I began to absorb what was happening in the world… And contemplate the importance of community and intergenerational connections. It also provided me a chance to teach my 4 year old daughter about community, and the importance of doing what you can to help others. ”

Thanks to Michelles work, isolated seniors and hardworking frontline workers across Ottawa can feel cared for and thought of during a time of crisis. Her hardwork has left many people smiling in situations where they might have suffered otherwise.

Linda Cruz

COVID-19 has been difficult for many, especially those struggling with their mental health which is why services such as the Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region are so crucial to the community. But none of that would be possible if it were not for dedicated volunteers like Linda Cruz.

Since the start of COVID-19, the need for mental health services and support has grown. One in five Canadians will be affected by a mental health crisis at some point in their lives and those numbers have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, making crisis lines and system navigation services more important now than ever. Many online platforms have been encouraging community members to reach out to the Distress Centre if they are struggling to cope.

In response to the escalated need during the pandemic, Linda has increased her involvement with the Distress Centre. Linda felt a responsibility  to step up for her community—recognizing that some of the existing volunteers wouldn’t be able to take shifts because of family obligations, health concerns, or other circumstances.

Linda says the Distress Centre’s work is so important and with an increase in calls from frontline workers and people who are struggling with isolation, it is now more important than ever.

As a volunteering veteran with over 10 years of volunteer experience under her belt, Linda is a leader within her team at the centre and is responsible for answering direct calls. As the Distress Centre has adapted to accommodate volunteers now supporting their community safely from home, Linda showed her dedication to people in Ottawa by ensuring this volunteer-driven service remained available to answer calls. 

The work of the Distress Centre is crucial to our community, as we grapple with the lasting effects of COVID-19. Thanks to volunteers like Linda, people across our region are feeling secure and safe, knowing where they can turn when they need resources, support, or just a kind and friendly voice to listen.

While we don’t yet know when we will be able to gather again at the Wall of Inspiration, we look forward to adding the names of COVID-19 Heroes to these walls in the future and keeping you updated on the progress of these remarkable Community Builders.




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