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Supporting families in rural communities through COVID-19


In March, four days before our communities shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19, 15-year-old Rebecca from Renfrew County was just starting at a new high school. 

She had experienced bullying at her old school, so she was looking forward to a fresh start where she could make new friends and create new bonds with her teachers. 

Unfortunately, since schools were closed, Rebecca didn’t get a chance to meet many people. For the rest of the school year, she attended classes online with teachers and students who didn’t know her.

For someone who struggles with generalized anxiety and social anxiety, virtual learning was an added barrier to communication and relationship-building during an already difficult time.

Prior to the shut-down, Rebecca was referred to the Phoenix Centre for Children and Families: a local agency that offered mental health support. COVID-19 meant she was unable to attend the in-person appointments she was used tobut thanks to support from United Way East Ontario, the Centre was soon able to adapt and bring its services online. 

Rebecca has been able to continue the consistency of therapy despite the challenging circumstances. And because many of the difficulties present in Rebecca’s life were exacerbated by the pandemic, the Centre has become a crucial part of her day-to-day life during this time. 

“Thankfully, she had Emily (Rebecca’s therapist) who would listen to her and guide her and advise her and gave her the strength and the ability to stand up the best that she could,” says Rebecca’s mom, Jenn.

Collaborating to make an impact

Prior to COVID-19, the Phoenix Centre was already looking at ways to offer virtual mental health services for its clients. The goal was to increase access for clients who had to travel great distances to the Centre, and to reduce appointment cancellations during bad weather. 

When the pandemic hit, Greg Lubimiv, Executive Director of the Phoenix Centre, says they realized it would be much more efficient to collaborate and share best practices with other mental health agencies as they tried to move their services online.

“Instead of all of us scrambling amongst hundreds of agencies, we can do it through a one door approach and have a more collective, collaborative response that meets those (community) needs.”


With support from United Way and the Emergency Community Support Fund, the Phoenix Centre is leading a network of mental health agencies across East Ontario to ensure top-quality care during COVID-19 and beyond. This involves increasing internet bandwidth capacity in rural areas, standardizing patient privacy and confidentiality protocols, consistently training employees on various virtual systems, and addressing other challenges that arose during the shift.

Understanding and addressing the needs of both service providers and clients was what motivated Greg and his team during the initial days of the pandemic. For cash-strapped local agencies, this collaborative approach also meant they could work smarter with the funds they had during a financially uncertain time.

“The United Way ECSF was perfect for this project in terms of looking at how we can create a collective and systemic response to the issues related to providing virtual care.”

For many people living in rural communities, accessing support can be a challenge.

Often, resources—particularly affordable, community-based programs—are located in urban centers. For those who already struggle to reach out, an added transportation barrier may mean people may never access the help they need.

Rebecca and her mother Jenn have been accessing services at the Phoenix Centre for Children and Families in Renfrew County, a United Way partner, for over two years now. 

“The mental health support in this area is lacking, and the Phoenix Centre filled that gap for us,” says Jenn. “It gave Rebecca support when we had no other support.”

A family-wide approach to mental health support

Over the course of those two years attending the Centre, not only has Rebecca made huge strides in her mental health, but so has the rest of her family.

Struggling to cope with guilt, grief, and a multitude of personal hurdles, Jenn was finding it difficult to support her children’s mental health needs all by herself. Thanks to the Phoenix Centre, she no longer has to.

“I thought I was letting my kids down. I felt like I was, you know, somehow to blame for so much of it. And the Centre helped me to see that this wasn’t something that was my fault, and that the decisions that I was making were for the best of my family,” says Jenn. “The Centre provided me with the tools I needed to provide the support my children deserved.”


“I used to be scared to ask for help over a math problem, but now I know how to communicate.”

Thanks to United Way East Ontario’s generous donors, services like mental health counselling in our rural communities can continue to provide the local support their clients need and deserve in order to lead fulfilling lives—during COVID-19 and beyond.

“People feel very alone. If they realize there are more people just like them who have the same feelings, the same questions, the same concerns … the more they realize that people are just like them, they feel less alone,” says Jenn. “I think that’s how we break the stigma.”

COVID-19 has been difficult for many, but with community support, we can ensure families all across East Ontario feel a little less alone. 

Together, we can help the most vulnerable.




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