The pandemic has made many challenges in our communities much worse. For youth in low-income neighbourhoods, for rural youth, for kids in unstable and violent homes, and for kids at risk of falling behind in school, COVID-19 has meant even greater challenges than before—and the threat of even worse outcomes.
Many local children did not have internet access, devices, or adult support to help them succeed in virtual environments. These new social and economic barriers affected children’s engagement to critical resources and hindered their ability to learn and stay connected—a problem that has dispraportionatly affected low-income neighbourhoods.
The heart of each community
Ottawa’s community houses are social service organizations located directly within 16 social housing neighbourhoods in the city, offering barrier-free, community-based programs and support for individuals and families—especially those who experience more vulnerability due to poverty, crime and unequal access to resources.
The Ottawa Coalition of Community Houses was established in 1998 to help community house staff and volunteers exchange information and provide mutual support. As a network of agencies working together to support and serve low-income families across the city, programs offered include communal kitchens, social programs, community engagement and access to everyday essentials—creating a hub for connection, growth, and innovation.
A long-time partner of United Way, the Coalition has dedicated over 25 years to addressing issues of poverty, lack of access and other challenges affecting various communities in the capital region.
Thousands of residents, particularly kids, have benefited from the safety net that community houses provide. When the pandemic began, this safety net became more important than ever before.
Banding together in new ways
Representatives of the Coalition were regular participants at the United Way-led COVID-19 Community Response Table meetings, which constructed an evolving profile of how the pandemic is affecting the most vulnerable people.
To help fuel solutions, in the summer of 2020 United Way East Ontario and the Ottawa Coalition of Community Houses conducted a needs assessment in the Banff Avenue and Confederation Court community housing neighbourhoods—areas with high numbers of newcomer families and single-parent households.
Beth Tooley, Coalition Coordinator for the Ottawa Coalition of Community Houses, shared how community houses are responding to the impacts of COVID-19 in these high-needs neighbourhoods.
In mid-March of 2020 when community services and after school programs were instructed to shut down in line with public health recommendations, community houses like Banff Avenue and Confederation Court quickly pivoted to ensure essential services were still provided to youth and their families.
Banff Avenue, for example, partnered with other community groups to ensure food security, access to internet and devices, and completed regular check-ins with children and youth.
Ensuring the supports kids and families depend on stay stable
At United Way, we understand how vital community is to our wellbeing.
Studies have shown that a sense of belonging and feeling connected leads to living healthier and happier lives. We didn’t want this to change when COVID-19 restrictions were implemented across our region. With innovation, creativity, and the help of our partners, access to resources and support remained available—along with new programs that fit our ever-changing realities.
With the support of The Stephen and Jocelyne Greenberg Foundation, United Way has been able to provide stability in the Banff Avenue and Confederation Court community houses—specifically when it comes to adressing the academic achievement gap often faced by low-income students.
With the MAKE iT Club,the Coalition of Community Houses were able to deliver Learn from Home Kits: educational activity kits that provided STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) learning tools for children and youth when they could’nt participate in in-person programming.
Staff recognized parents were feeling overwhelmed, and in May 2020 Confederation Court and Banff Avenue provided virtual learning support to highly vulnerable children. Staff connected with children and parents to provide one-on-one tutoring as well as homework support, and also loaned out laptops to families as needed.
Thanks to The Stephen and Jocelyne Greenberg Foundation and United Way, Ottawa’s community houses have been able to continue these services and expand to support a greater number of children.
The resilience we have built during the panemic can propel us to be better than we were before. We have our sleeves rolled up, and with our partners and donors by our side, we’re determined to continue this important work.