Joe

by Dakota Halfpenny on May 18, 2023 Comments Off on Joe
Joe Douglas, director, Stevenson Children's Camp

“It’s not just a kid going to a camp for a week during the summer. It’s much larger than that.”

Joe, Director, Stevenson Children's Camp

During his first day at summer camp almost two decades ago, Joe Douglas received an unexpected gift: a vote of confidence in his leadership potential.

He was nine, maybe 10 years old – trying to find solid footing amid the shifting sands of family life and learning how to get along in a roughedges neighbourhood that rewarded bravado more than bravery.

“I was a good kid but it wouldn’t have taken much for me to have taken a completely different path,” he says today.

The pivot-point was his aunt’s suggestion that Joe and his brother attend the United Way-funded Stevenson Children’s Camp near Dorchester.

Fellow campers voted Joe leader of the day the morning he arrived. And later, when he helped a non-swimmer play a game in the pool, the lifeguard commended him for his kindness.

Fast-forward into adulthood, Joe is now serving as executive director of Stevenson Camp and says those moments changed how he thought about himself. “It’s those little things that feel big when you’re a kid. People believed in me. They saw my potential.”

Today, Joe and his team of counsellors, leaders and other staff strive to work that same magic in each of the 768 kids who visit every summer.

Campers don’t just learn archery, swimming and silly supper songs. They experience – some of them for the first time – what it’s like to be a kid. What it’s like to hear someone declare their worth.

They learn to find and follow their life’s compass.

“It’s not just a kid going to a camp for a week during the summer. It’s much larger than that,” Joe says.

Surrounded by people who care

One in four children in this region is part of a family living below the poverty line. Through donor dollars, United Way Elgin Middlesex proudly supports Stevenson Children’s camp and numerous other programs, projects and services to prevent and reduce poverty and give all kids a place to belong (see sidebar for more).

Kids who come to Stevenson Camp – where the fee is a nominal $25/week, and sometimes nothing at all – are referred from local schools, community resource centres, Children’s Aid Society of London & Middlesex and other agencies and groups.

While they have diverse backgrounds and unique histories, they share a common need, says Joe: “To be loved. To be believed in. To be safe. They need to be trusted. They need to be surrounded by people who care.

“Here, they’re able to just be kids and flourish and have friendships. They don’t have to be the tough kid or the silly kid or whatever layers they had to put on at school or at home. They get to be their true selves, and then they can take back home a bit of who they really are.”

They learn to take appropriate risks, on the low-ropes course or wayfinding through the woods. “Some of them are so used to failing, they’re afraid to try new things – even sleeping away from home for a week is a really big thing. We give them the confidence to try.”

Camp inspired Joe to earn a diploma in child and youth work. Camp is also where he met his wife Jes, where they both worked and where she continues to be a key volunteer.

Most of the leaders-in-training, counsellors and staff are former campers. Some make their way to become early-childhood educators or youth workers and social workers.
And so, the cycle of leaders growing new leaders continues, even if it isn’t immediately apparent while making s’mores around a campfire.

“Some of these seeds we’re planting, we’re not going to see the results right away,” Joe says. “And then years later, you see a young adult who tells you, ‘Everyone gave up on me, but you didn’t,’ and they’re now in child-focused careers, helping other kids.”

Stevenson Children’s Camp director Joe Douglas and his son Bayne on the playground

Your gift also supports youth here:

Big Brothers Big Sisters of St. Thomas-Elgin and Big Brothers Big Sisters of London and Area: One-on-one mentoring with a screened, trained adult volunteer for children and youth identified as “at-risk”

BCG London: Academic and financial support for children and youth to ensure success in education, fee assistance for low-income families for day camps and after-school clubs

Neighbourhood Resource Centres throughout London: social, recreational and leadership programs for children, youth and families

Ignite Youth Centre, Elgin-St. Thomas Youth Employment Counselling Centre: social, education and employment support, and mentoring for youth aged 12-19

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Tanya

by Dakota Halfpenny on March 8, 2023 Comments Off on Tanya

“I’m proud that I’m working on just improving myself. I’m proud that I’m talking to the right supports.”

Tanya, United Way program participant

‘I’m a person, I’ve got a name’

Homelessness can happen to anyone. I’m the perfect example. I worked full-time for years, had a house, had a marriage. Everything was fine – until it just wasn’t fine. I suffered a bit of an emotional breakdown and that’s what led me to homelessness.

Coming home to the YWCA’s housing stability program – where I had a safety net, my own room, privacy, food – that was a blessing. Everybody was welcoming. The staff are great. The girls that live here were instant friendships and instant supports as well.

Here, I’m a person, I’ve got a name. Everybody knows your story and they can tell when you’re having a bad day. I celebrated my birthday here and it was a terrible day. I found out, online, that my mom had died that day. I fell apart. And the girls were great. They brought joy to that day for me.

My next step, now that I’ve found a part-time job, is to slowly, hopefully, try to save some money to be independent in my own apartment once again. But I realize that’s not something that’s going to happen overnight either. That’s one thing that’s amazing about this place, too. I don’t feel pressured like, ‘you have 60 days to find a job and get the heck out.’ I know they don’t want you to live here forever – they want to see us all succeed on our own – but we have that time.

I’ve definitely seen personal growth for me, so that’s probably the best thing I’ve gotten out of here thus far. I’m proud that I’m working on just improving myself. I’m proud that I’m talking to the right supports. I’m proud that I have gotten myself together enough to get a job, a good job. I’m proud of the relationships I’ve made. I’m proud of the strength I didn’t know I had.

SHOW YOUR LOCAL LOVE.

DONATE TODAY

YWCA – St. Thomas-Elgin Supportive Housing for Adults is one of more than 50 local programs and services supported by United Way Elgin Middlesex, the region’s largest non-government funder of social services.

If you or someone you know is looking for basic needs, housing supports or other community-based services in your area, contact @211Ontario to be connected with local resources that can help.

Tanya, United Way program participant at the YWCA St. Thomas-Elgin speaking with her support worker Michelle

A reason for hope

Across the region, people struggle in plain sight, their symptoms of poverty visible as they battle addiction, homelessness, isolation and mental health in parks, on street corners and in downtown building doorways. But those working hard to change that story say there is reason for hope.

Learn more about how we’re ReUnited.

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Mario

by Dakota Halfpenny on March 6, 2023 Comments Off on Mario

“Anything’s possible. I believe that.”

Mario, United Way program participant

Once I started coming here, I was told anything’s possible

The first time I came to The London Coffee House was about seven or eight years ago. I lived with somebody who was really moody and he was having a bad day. And I thought, ‘well, the Coffee House has moved down to Hamilton Road and I hear they’re having chili.’ So, I came by walked past it two or three times, then I ran into Krista who works here. She said, ‘oh, we still have some,’ and she bought me a bowl of chili and we talked. Pretty soon, the Coffee House became like a second home to me.

I used to work as a chef at a restaurant. At the time, I was losing my sight bit by bit because of glaucoma and then they said it wasn’t safe for me to do that anymore. I went from being a chef to being a nobody.

Losing my sight was difficult. But the hardest part for me was adjusting. I was struggling and I felt like giving up. I’ve had people knock the cane out of my hand, I’ve had people push me, bump me. For a long time, I honestly started to feel like people really didn’t have any caring in them.

I was told a lot that I couldn’t do things anymore because of my sight. Once I started coming here, I was told anything’s possible – and I believe that. Because of this organization, I am a somebody. The staff talks to us and makes us feel we’re safe. There’s no one who’s going to hurt me. Coming to Coffee House made me realize there are people who care. When I was struggling and felt like giving up, they were the inspiration to keep me going. They’ve been there for me in so many ways. I love them all and, honestly, I’d give my heart for them.

SHOW YOUR LOCAL LOVE.

DONATE TODAY

United Way Elgin Middlesex supports local agencies that reduce and prevent poverty, address basic needs, and provide housing stability and homelessness prevention.

If you or someone you know is looking for housing supports in your area, contact @211Ontario to be connected with local resources that can help.

Mario, United Way program participant at the London Coffee House

A reason for hope

Across the region, people struggle in plain sight, their symptoms of poverty visible as they battle addiction, homelessness, isolation and mental health in parks, on street corners and in downtown building doorways. But those working hard to change that story say there is reason for hope.

Learn more about how we’re ReUnited.

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Tanya

by Dakota Halfpenny on November 21, 2022 Comments Off on Tanya

“It’s important to have a home because a home is having your own safe place.”

Tanya, United Way program participant

Finding home, growing hope

I moved to London in 2016 and we couldn’t find a place to rent. It was hard, really hard. I was homeless for two years and lived in shelters. After a while, I put most of my important stuff in a locker so I didn’t have to carry a bunch of stuff when I went to see landlords. Then I talked to people at London Cares and they helped with bus tickets to go to viewings and coached me for interviews with landlords. They helped me find a clean and affordable apartment and I love it.

When I found a home, I was able to start looking for a job. I had no experience and so my worker at London Cares was really helpful preparing me for a job. I did volunteer work at first, trying to build up my resume. In my job interview, they said, ‘Are you okay?’ and I told her, ‘It’s my first interview ever in my whole life,’ and she said, ‘You don’t have to be nervous, you’re okay.’ Then at 4 a.m., I checked my email and I got the job!

London Cares still helps me when I need it. They help me with eyeglasses. They help me with the dentist. When I need someone to talk to, I can talk to them about anything.  It feels great to have someone have my back.

So now I have a job and a home and I love it. It’s important to have a home because a home is having your own safe place. I can hang out with my brother and we can have guests here. His friends come over, my friends come over and we make dinner together. I have a better home than before. I can have my cat at my apartment – I rescued her at my old place because she was really skinny – so she has a better home, too.

SHOW YOUR LOCAL LOVE.

DONATE TODAY

United Way Elgin Middlesex supports local agencies that reduce and prevent poverty, address basic needs, and provide housing stability and homelessness prevention.

If you or someone you know is looking for housing supports in your area, contact @211Ontario to be connected with local resources that can help.

Tanya, London Cares United Way program participant and her cat

A vacancy rate of 1.8% across the London and Middlesex region drives rent costs higher and makes it even harder to find decent, affordable housing if you’re an individual or family living in poverty.

Almost 6,000 households are currently on the wait list for affordable housing in our region.

A reason for hope

Across the region, people struggle in plain sight, their symptoms of poverty visible as they battle addiction, homelessness, isolation and mental health in parks, on street corners and in downtown building doorways. But those working hard to change that story say there is reason for hope.

Learn more about how we’re ReUnited.

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Dakota HalfpennyTanya

Joseph

by Dakota Halfpenny on June 13, 2022 Comments Off on Joseph
Joseph P., United Way Elgin Middlesex donor & past program participant

“I know my investment will be used wisely. They are trustworthy. They will use the funds to help people who need it most. They give a voice to those who are being left behind. They are giving kids like I once was a fair shot at a good life.”

Joseph P., United Way donor & past program participant

I grew up in poverty, but I don’t think I knew what that meant back then. I just knew things were the way that they were, and we made that work.

I would run outside when the lights went out. Sometimes the street was dark, and sometimes it was just our house. When our fridge broke, we ate out of the cooler for a while.

We made it work.

When I was 12, my parents separated. I began to bounce back and forth between my mom and dad’s a lot.

After dad’s new partner moved in, things deteriorated. She was dealing with her own challenges. I’ve been hit with dinner plates and beer steins. I’ve been used as an ashtray to butt out cigarettes.

Or she would act like I didn’t exist. Sometimes for months. Then I would come home to find my clothes in bags on the porch and I’d be back on my way to my mom’s. Things were better there, but mom struggled with the bills, so I’d be back at dad’s after not too long.

Those were tough times, but I had to be strong for my mom.

When I got to high school I signed up for football and every other sport I could. The longer I stayed out, the less I’d be at home.

I hung out at a neighbourhood resource centre. I used the spot as a safe space. The cafeteria was good for doing homework.

The problem with poverty is that it branches into other things. Like struggles with mental wellness. And trust issues. I still wake up in the night from nightmares. I’ll carry that forever.

Fast forward 30 years. I have a wonderful family. A wife and children. I’m involved in my community because I believe it’s important.

I’ve donated to United Way a long time. I’ve climbed the StairClimb. I’ve gone to Harvest Lunch (everyone loves a sandwich!). Last year, my employer sponsored me to work full-time at United Way for the duration of their Campaign. It was an eye-opening experience to see first-hand the work that United Way does to reduce and end poverty for real people right here in our community.

At United Way I worked alongside people like Nancy Needham. Nancy is the Executive Director at South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre, a United Way funded agency like the spot I found refuge at when I was young. Nancy shared with me that resource centers are a haven for young people and families.

People in need of food and other basics show up looking for help, and that’s when the magic begins. Once urgent needs are met, staff are quick to identify other barriers. Are the children getting the resources they need to succeed at school? Is language a barrier to government services?

And perhaps most importantly, a resource centre provides a sense of community and inclusion.

At United Way I learned that by working together, our community can include everyone. Hope is on our horizon, things are looking better for a lot of people out there, but many continue to struggle.

United Way sees this need. So, they have focused funding on programs that reduce or alleviate the impact of poverty in people’s lives. They understand that providing neighbourhood-based support is critical in ensuring people have timely access to not only what they need to get by in tough times, but also to help people, kids and families thrive and succeed. This is why I give to United Way. I know my investment will be used wisely. They are trustworthy. They will use the funds to help people who need it most. They give a voice to those who are being left behind. They are giving kids like I once was a fair shot at a good life.

SHOW YOUR LOCAL LOVE.

South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre, Youth Program participant

“Neighbourhood Resource Centres give a voice to youth and families in our community. It’s a place for people to come together. Some are looking for urgent needs to be met, while others are looking for companionship and opportunity. Young people want to be a part of something and make a difference. With United Way’s help, we keep our doors open to serve the community at its point of need.”

Nancy Needham
Executive Director South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre

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Kate

by Dakota Halfpenny on October 15, 2021 Comments Off on Kate
Kate Stewart, Executive Director, Daya Counselling Centre

As the crisis shifts from COVID-19 to mental health, United Way partner agency Daya Counselling Centre is well-equipped to weather the storm. Early in the pandemic, Daya pivoted to a hybrid model, experiencing some surprising benefits. Many clients reported that meeting online removed barriers like transportation and childcare. It’s an option Daya plans to keep.

“Affordable counseling services are so important to these clients at this particular moment in time, because the pandemic has compounded the challenges people are facing in their everyday lives.”

Kate Stewart, Executive Director, Daya Counselling Centre

More people seeking mental health support now than ever before

When requests for subsidized counselling services grew by up to 25% during the pandemic, Daya Counselling Centre responded by opening up single-session counselling appointments to tide people over, thanks to United Way funding.

With increasing numbers of people experiencing anxiety and depression during the pandemic, accessing help has been a challenge for many, especially for those with financial barriers.

At London’s Daya Counselling Centre, the urgency of the situation became clear in the months after the first COVID-19 lockdown as its wait list for subsidized counselling services grew to unprecedented levels.

There were so many on the verge of crisis, Daya staff knew they had to do something to help. With funding from United Way Elgin Middlesex, they opened up subsidized single-counselling sessions to those on the waiting list as a way to tide people over until longer-term spots opened up.

“If someone accesses mental health supports, they might be able to stay in a job or find a job, or to get connected to resources that help them access basic needs and supports,” said Daya Executive Director Kate Stewart.

And it was important to include those sessions as part of Daya’s subsidized—meaning low- or no-cost—services, she said.

“Affordable counseling services are so important to these clients at this particular moment in time, because the pandemic has compounded the challenges people are facing in their everyday lives.”

Even before COVID-19, Daya was known as a place that could help people who couldn’t afford expensive therapy. During the past year, the number of clients seeking subsidized counselling services skyrocketed, increasing by about 25 per cent compared to the year before.

That’s why the single sessions were “instrumental,” to helping people cope, said Daya psychotherapist Ana Barrientos.

“We’ve seen an incredible increase in the amount of people needing supports. And I’ve heard from many of them that if those supports weren’t subsidized, they would never be able to access them,” she said. “The pandemic really has impacted people’s livelihoods, their home situations.”

Noting some new clients reported never experiencing such severe mental health issues before COVID-19 struck, Barrientos said the pandemic has had a “ripple effect” that has continued to impact individuals and families who’ve lost jobs and income during the past 18 months.

“They haven’t necessarily recovered quite so quickly as others. They don’t have the same resources they once had and they don’t necessarily have the supports they need because others around them are also experiencing a lot of high stressors,” she said.

“I do see that there is a disparity in terms of that recovery for people coming from different socioeconomic statuses.”

And there’s no sign of that slowing. Despite the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, calls for service are continuing to rise.

“There certainly is some light at the end of the tunnel. But in terms of people’s mental health and well-being, I really don’t know if that light is all that bright at the moment,” Stewart said.

“As we start to recover from the pandemic we are seeing and hearing an increased need for mental health services across the board. But in particular we are hearing from individuals who are looking for affordable, but high-quality supports.”

Daya’s subsidized counselling program is funded 100 per cent by community donations, including United Way.

“We really wouldn’t be able to get through the pandemic if we didn’t focus on that sense of connection, the ways in which we can support each other,” Stewart said.

“With all of the uncertainty that the pandemic brought, it was such a relief to know that the United Way was there to support us.

“It was really a port in the storm.”

Join the recovery.

When people seeking subsidized counselling services grew by up to 25% during the pandemic, United Way partner agency Daya Counselling Centre responded with a hybrid service delivery model and increased counselling options to help people navigate difficult times.

There’s an issue
Mental health is worsening for multiple populations, with certain vulnerable groups even harder hit, including those who are unemployed, have a pre-existing mental health issue, are younger (aged 18-24), are Indigenous, identify as LGBTQ2, and those with a disability. Youth are reporting the biggest declines in mental health in the country.

You can help
Community disasters and pandemics can trigger mental distress, suicide, and drug use, and can compound pre-existing mental illnesses. As our community starts to recover, many people are needing help for the first time. United Way invests in mental health counselling services, drop-in programs, and confidential telephone support for individuals, children and families.

Your donation helps residents maintain mental wellbeing, social connection and safety. With your support, 10,313 people increased their ability to cope and improve their situation after receiving support from a United Way funded program. 2,632 more said they were able to increase their sense of wellbeing.

Here’s how:

  • $52 provides 10 youth struggling with mental health with all the art supplies and support they need to participate in art classes for a month at South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre
  • $365 provides 40 volunteers from CMHA-Middlesex’s Support Line with the mental health education and training they require to support individuals experiencing distress within our community
  • $1,200 covers the full cost for two families to receive a comprehensive assessment for their child experiencing mental health distress and 14 weeks of supportive family counselling in Vanier Children’s Services Focused Family Therapy program
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Tim

by Dakota Halfpenny on October 13, 2021 Comments Off on Tim
SPENCER MEDERIOS, Youth engagement co-ordinator, Ignite Youth Centre

COVID-19 restrictions created a perfect storm of top risk factors linked to intimate partner violence, including isolation, job insecurity and housing uncertainty. Staff at Caring Dads, a program of United Way partner agency Changing Ways, figured out quickly how to keep the work going with men at risk of abusing.

“We work with these men because they have children and women in their life that they’re impacting. We focus on the person causing the harm to help them create safety for themselves and their families.”

Tim Kelly, Executive Director, Changing Ways

‘He would sign in from a bus stop. He wouldn’t miss a session.’

United Way helped keep families safe during the pandemic by providing funds to help Caring Dads deliver remote support to men at risk of abusing. As we start to recover and return to in-person activities, the program is exploring ways to keep the benefits of virtual support meetings and counselling sessions.

Tim Kelly has been answering the same questions for two decades.

“Why do you help the men?” people have asked since he first joined Changing Ways — a London-based organization that provides counselling to men involved in intimate partner violence.

“Why do you spend any time working with them?”

To Kelly and the community agencies who partner with Changing Ways, the answer is obvious.

“We work with these men, because they have children and women in their life that they’re impacting. We focus on the person causing the harm to help them create safety for themselves and their families.

“It is child-centred work.”

That statement is an underlying theme of Caring Dads, a Changing Ways program that focuses specifically on helping fathers who abuse or neglect their children.

Launched in 2001 with $5,000 in United Way funding, Caring Dads has been so successful that it has been adapted by agencies across Canada, the U.S., England, Europe and Australia and translated into five languages. In Elgin County, London and Middlesex County it supports hundreds of men each year.

“It helps to see I’m not alone. When you talk out loud about the issues in an environment where you’re not judged, it helps you work these things out,” said one client interviewed. “Since being in the program, I know I’ve become a better dad to my son and I see how my words affect him.

“I never want to miss a meeting.”

It was because of that dad and hundreds more that staff knew they had to do something to keep contact with dads involved in the Caring Dads program when COVID-19 forced global shutdowns.

With funding from United Way Elgin Middlesex, staff bought electronic tablets for clients so they could log in for virtual support meetings and counselling sessions.

While the remote access was meant to be a temporary bandage it had a lasting benefit.
“It did remove many barriers,” said Caring Dads facilitator Carina Corradi, recalling one man charged with assaulting his partner, who was homeless during the pandemic.

“He would participate in the program from the street—from the bus stop,” she said. “He wouldn’t miss one session.

“That is powerful.”

Changing Ways works closely with family-serving agencies as well as the Children’s Aid Society and probation services. It has also embarked on a partnership with London’s Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration to adapt services to meet different needs of different communities, Kelly said.

During the first year of the pandemic, 395 men from London, St. Thomas and rural communities of Elgin and Middlesex Counties were mandated by court and referred by other agencies or themselves to participate in the Caring Dads Program—a nearly 30 per cent increase from the year before. And during the second year of pandemic restrictions including rolling shutdowns, the program was on track for another 30 per cent increase in requests for service.

COVID-19 restrictions created a perfect storm of some of the top “risk factors” linked to intimate partner violence, including isolation, job insecurity and housing uncertainty, said Kelly.

To address the increased risks for the Caring Dads in their program, staff incorporated more outreach into the service, contacting the men to check in between scheduled counselling and group sessions.

“We scrambled pretty quickly to figure out how to keep the work going, how to keep the referrals coming in . . . and say, ‘We’re here. We’re open for business,” said Kelly.

“One thing we never lost sight of was that there are people that are at risk with the men we work with,” Kelly said.

“Our focus is specifically to help these men create safety for their children. For their families.”

Join the recovery.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced our community to isolate, household stress increased. For families at risk of violence, isolation only made matters worse. Caring Dads, a program of United Way partner agency Changing Ways, quickly modified services to offer virtual programs for men working to end the abuse and disrespect in their homes.

There’s an issue
Social isolation and lack of access to support have increased the severity and intensity of intimate partner violence. Rates soared 20-30% during the pandemic and the need for services for children and families is not slowing down.

You can help
As our community starts to recover, programs like Caring Dads that work with perpetrators of intimate partner violence and agencies like Anova and Women’s Rural Resource Centre that support women and children survivors will need help as they continue to evolve virtual and in-person programs. United Way invests in counselling, support and proven solutions to help end generational cycles of abuse in families so that our whole community can thrive.

Your donation ensures individuals and families who have experienced or been affected by intimate partner violence get help in our community. Last year, 541 people accessed support for intimate partner violence at a United Way funded program and an additional 179 parents increased their coping skills.

Here’s how:

  • $52 supplies an individual struggling to meet their urgent basic needs with bus tickets so they can attend important community appointments/supports like job training, interviews, medical appointments and legal counselling
  • $365 helps Women’s Rural Resource Centre put together care packages including crayons, paper, colouring pages, a journal, playdough and a toy for children whose family has been impacted by family violence in our community
  • $1,200 connects a woman who has experienced sexual violence to a supportive counsellor for four months of specialized, one-to-one counselling through Anova’s Counselling Services
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Spencer

by Dakota Halfpenny on October 8, 2021 Comments Off on Spencer
SPENCER MEDERIOS, Youth engagement co-ordinator, Ignite Youth Centre

When COVID-19 struck our community, staff at United Way partner agency Ignite Youth Centre stepped up to make sure young people in our community had the support they needed to make it through difficult times.

“We started to do virtual programming as soon as we could. We knew they were struggling because of all the uncertainty. We knew we needed to focus on mental health, and on doing fun things.”

Spencer Mederios, Youth engagement co-ordinator, Ignite Youth Centre

Helping youth in St. Thomas and Elgin County see a brighter future

United Way helped youth navigate challenging times during the pandemic by providing funding to help Ignite Youth Centre deliver remote support to young people. As restrictions begin to ease, the Centre is starting to welcome youth back.

Cancelled classes, missed graduations, lost time with friends. Plans for school, sports and work postponed so much it seemed there was no point.

The COVID-19 pandemic took a devastating toll on youth mental health, robbing them of rites of passage during a time many expected to be the best years of their lives.

At Ignite Youth Centre — which serves nearly 500 Elgin County adolescents yearly through its free programs and vibrant drop-in centre in downtown St. Thomas — staff recognized early in the first shut-down that they needed a new way to help youth in the community.

“We started to do virtual programming as soon as we could,” said Spencer Mederios, a youth engagement co-ordinator at the St. Thomas-based organization which receives funding from United Way Elgin Middlesex.

“We knew they were struggling because of all the uncertainty. We knew we needed to focus on mental health, and on doing fun things.”

Keeping in mind Ignite’s underpinning theme of “smart decisions for success,” the staff put together new virtual programs that included paint nights, stressball-making workshops and movie nights. Not only did the youth sign up immediately, in some cases Ignite had to start wait lists because registration was full.

“It was so exciting,” Mederios said. “We had youth participating — laughing. It just made all the difference.”

In fact, it was a game-changer for teens and tweens from smaller communities such as Sparta, Union and Port Stanley, who participated in programs they could never attend in person, Mederios. Ignite plans to continue a mix of virtual and in-person programming after the pandemic.

But while the internet provided a lifeline, the team at Ignite knew the importance of helping youth build community connections and didn’t want to lose that during shut-downs. So with funding from United Way Elgin Middlesex, Ignite partnered with local agencies and businesses to launch a virtual farmer’s market, which gave teens experience in everything from online ordering to packaging to customer service.

The market fit into Ignite’s goal to help youth contribute to their community, while providing “connections to other peers and caring adults,” said Executive Director Jackie Van Ryswyk.

When COVID-19 restrictions were lifted this summer, staff launched two new programs—one to help youths gain self-confidence and appreciate themselves and the other on team work—designed to address the needs of youth who’d experienced isolation during the pandemic.

“We know there are more vulnerable and at-risk youth than there were before the pandemic and as we start to recover, many are anxious about what the future holds for them,” said Van Ryswyk. “It’s important for youth to learn to build connections again.”

“We are ready to serve those youth and to meet them where they’re at.”

Join the recovery.

Staff at Ignite Youth Centre in St. Thomas recognized early in the first Covid-19 shut-down that they needed a new way to help youth in the community. The Centre—which serves nearly 500 Elgin County adolescents yearly through its free programs and vibrant drop-in centre in downtown St. Thomas—shifted to virtual activities quickly. This summer, they started to welcome youth back in person.

There’s an issue
The deep impact of virtual learning on kids’ mental health, and the impact of many months spent in isolation without connection to friends, extended family and neighbours has taken its toll on our community’s young people. Although mental health is worsening for multiple populations, youth are reporting the biggest declines in mental health in the country.

You can help
As kids return to school, educators and agencies like Ignite Youth Centre in St. Thomas that support them will be at the frontlines learning about the deep impact this past year has had on learning and kids’ mental health. United Way funds programs that target at-risk youth in our community, so that every young person gets the opportunity to succeed.

Your donation provides opportunities for recreation and connection. Last year, 3,074 children and youth from low-income families increased their physical activity and belonging at United Way funded programs.

Here’s how:

  • $52 provides a street-involved youth with a survival kit from Crouch Neighbourhood Resource Centre that includes a fresh change of clothing, dry shoes, nutritious snacks and hygiene supplies
  • $365 ensures that a professional youth worker at Ignite Youth Centre in St. Thomas is available for one week of evening programming to support and guide young people in our community
  • $1,200 matches a youth with a mentor for 10 months, including guidance and training for the mentor, oversight of the program and ongoing support to families of the youth through Big Brothers Big Sisters of London & Area
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Dakota HalfpennySpencer

Nancy B

by Dakota Halfpenny on June 7, 2021 Comments Off on Nancy B
Nancy B, Program Participant

Sometimes it seems like things can’t get any worse—and then they do. Last year was hard on everyone, but for people suffering with addictions or experiencing homelessness, things got harder real fast.

United Way has created a vital social safety net for people who are struggling. Your donation does more than just fund a charity. Your support helps provide a wrap-around community system that gives people a path to a better life.

Nancy B, Program Participant

I know what it feels like when you think things can’t get any worse – and then they do.

A little over 16 years ago, I was suffering from addiction and homelessness. I wasn’t someone you could trust and I was not on speaking terms with my family, including my four children.

My troubles started at a young age. When I learned my Dad wasn’t my biological father, it had a huge impact on my self-worth. I began to believe that I wasn’t worth another person’s love. I started to use my body to get attention and did drugs and whatever else I could to feel loved and wanted.

When I was 16, I had a baby. The father wanted nothing to do with us. This added to my feelings of being unwanted. At the time I didn’t have the tools, or know about the resources available, that could have helped me.

One year later I met someone. He seemed perfect, as new love always does. We got married and I was excited to begin my life as a new family.

This turned out to be the worst decision of my life. Years of physical, mental and emotional abuse followed. I spent countless nights at the hospital, making excuses for my injuries. Yet I always believed him when he told me he loved me and that it wouldn’t happen again. He was good at telling me what I wanted to hear and I believed him over and over again. I just wanted to feel loved.

Sure, I packed up my children a few times, threatening to never return. But having little money, and less self-esteem, I always went back. I wanted to believe him when he said things would be different. There were always honeymoon periods that followed that helped convince me he really did love me.

Fast forward to present day. Thinking about those times can be difficult for me now.  I often lie in bed and think about the life my children had growing up. It must have been hard, listening to the fighting, smashing and crying. It must have been scary when the police came.

It breaks my heart that my kids experienced these things.

I celebrated 16 years of being clean this February. I have a healthy, loving relationship with my children. I went back to school and got my degree. Four years ago I married a wonderful man who loves me.

It wasn’t an easy road. But with a lot of help, encouragement and guidance, I’m here to tell you that when people are ready, there is a way.

It’s called the United Way.

When I started my recovery, I didn’t know United Way funded the programs and services that would end up saving my life.

United Way has created a vital social safety net for people who are struggling. Your donation does more than just fund a charity. Your support helps provide a wrap-around community system that gives people a path to a better life.

When I needed help, I got it at Unity Project, a United Way funded agency. I used emergency food cupboards at neighbourhood resource centres. My children were able to go and be kids at the Boys and Girls Club of London and Merrymount Family Support and Crisis Centre.

United Way funds programs at all of these life-changing agencies.

Because of donations like yours, support was there for me when I needed it. Every program and service I used was in some way connected to United Way.

I know that without United Way, I wouldn’t be here today. I also know there are still people out there right now, struggling like I did. And COVID-19 has made everything even more difficult for them.

I give to United Way so that others can have the same chance I did: to have a fair shot at their best life. Please consider a gift. Let’s help someone together.

We often see families coming to the Centre looking for food support, but after we’ve given them food, we always ask ourselves, what’s next? What needs are hiding behind hunger?

Nancy Needham, Executive Director, South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre

The financial and emotional stress of the pandemic have contributed to more intense violence and more women and children needing our help. Lockdowns have caused these same women and children to be further isolated in their homes and less connected to friends, family, and social supports. We have to keep doing everything we can to support them.

Jessie Rodger, Executive Director, Anova, a United Way partner agency

Together, more than ever.

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Dakota HalfpennyNancy B

Lori

by Dakota Halfpenny on October 7, 2020 Comments Off on Lori
Lori Fitzgerald, executive director at Inn Out of the Cold

Lori Fitzgerald, executive director at Inn Out of the Cold, says heartwarming stories keep her team going. For the first time in its 10-year history, the Inn was open all spring and summer, providing shelter and support for more than 50 people daily.

Open, when the world was closed

When COVID-19 closed public spaces vital for local residents experiencing homelessness, United Way funding tripled services to help Inn Out of the Cold meet the growing need

The man was a former guest of Inn Out of the Cold.

He stayed at the St. Thomas shelter for a short time last summer and now he was back with good news.

“I not only have housing, but I have a job,” he said during a recent visit to the organization.

“And thank you.”

Lori Fitzgerald has heard heartwarming stories like his before, in her role as executive director of Inn Out of the Cold.

But in this case, the timing is important.

The man got help because the shelter was open to him during a pandemic – when everything else was closed. Open all spring and summer for the first time in its 10-year history, Inn Out of the Cold gave him refuge at a time he needed it most.

And that was made possible because of support from United Way Elgin Middlesex, which provided funds to help keep the shelter open all year and hire staff needed to run daytime services as well.

“United Way really is part of the backbone of our services,” says Fitzgerald. “They do provide a much longer-term relational kind of approach to funding than many others, so they’re very invested in our overall success of our guests and our program.”

Already a United Way funded agency, the Inn got a boost from the Federal government’s Emergency Community Support Fund, which was administered locally by United Way Elgin Middlesex. The organization used the money to triple staff and services to help community members who were struggling in circumstances triggered by COVID-19.

On average, 15 people stay at the emergency shelter each night and between 20 and 50 people visit the downtown drop-in centre every day, says Fitzgerald. Guests include people experiencing poverty and mental health and addiction issues who used to take a break from outside weather conditions at a library or arena or fast food restaurant.

When those places closed during a province-wide shut down this past spring to prevent COVID-19 spread, people who had nowhere to go during the day were stuck outside.

“It became visible very, very quickly,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s been a challenge, but it’s been great to be able to be able to step in to meet those needs. The only way we’re able to do that is with community support.”

Because Inn Out of The Cold already provided emergency shelter, food and basic needs through fall and winter months, St. Thomas officials asked the organization to operate the new daytime drop in. Funding from United Way helped hire a program manager and extra staff who help provide food and basic needs, and support for housing and work applications – while following physical distancing guidelines.

While many of the 120 volunteers have not been able to work during COVID-19 because of age or health conditions, those who can have more than doubled their pre-pandemic hours.

“Inn Out of the Cold really is supported in every way by our community. Usually if we say on Facebook that we need a pair of men’s pants, eight hours later, we’ve got four pairs of men’s pants. If we need a new cot . . . we have a new cot – or two new cots or three – by the end of that shift,” says Fitzgerald.

“I think COVID has proven to us all as a community that we can pull together and get through a crisis.”

Together, more than ever.

“[The needs] became visible very, very quickly…but it’s been great to be able to be able to step in to meet those needs. I think COVID has proven to us all as a community that we can pull together and get through a crisis.”

Lori Fitzgerald, Executive Director, Inn Out of the Cold

When public places closed during a province-wide shut down this past spring to prevent COVID-19 spread, people who had nowhere to go during the day were stuck outside. Funding from United Way helped Inn Out of the Cold add a daytime drop in centre to help provide food and basic needs, and support for housing and work applications – while following physical distancing guidelines.

There’s an issue
Homelessness affects everything from employment to personal safety, mental health and access to healthy food. It’s difficult to fully participate your community, keep a job or go to school if you don’t have a safe place to sleep.

You can help
United Way supports a housing-first approach that quickly moves people experiencing homelessness in to independent and permanent housing with appropriate supports. We invest in programs that help people obtain and maintain a secure and stable long-term home.

1,052 individuals accessed affordable housing and financial products and services funded by United Way

Here’s how:

  • $52 provides a person experiencing homelessness with a daily visit to a local coffee house for social connections and support
  • $365 helps to provide survival kits with clothing, toiletries and food for 10 youth in the community
  • $1,200 provides 12 sessions of personal counselling for a person struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma or other challenges to their mental health
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Dakota HalfpennyLori