United. For a community where everyone matters

United Way invests in, advocates for, and connects with our neighbours – so that everyone has a fair shot at a good life. Together, we are United.

The first time Lisa Synott walked into Glen Cairn Community Resource Centre, it was partly because she had heard about its emergency food cupboard.

She didn’t know then what the neighbourhood centre had to offer, or that her kids would make friends in its homework clubs and volunteer at its day camps. She didn’t know it would become her support system as she raised her family and earned her chef training certification. She didn’t know she’d ultimately find purpose and a job there, teaching cooking lessons aimed at helping people make healthy affordable meals — or that she’d become known as “the Soup Whisperer.”

‘They call me the Soup Whisperer,’ says Lisa Synott, who first visited Glen Cairn Neighbourhood resource Centre for food for her family and now is a part-time staff member who helps other people cook healthy, fresh food.

‘Anyone can walk in’

But she did know that with two young kids and her third on the way, it was getting near impossible to feed everyone on her restricted income.

So when Synott saw a poster that a community centre within walking distance was putting on a kids’ fun fair – and had a free food cupboard for residents of London’s Glen Cairn and Pond Mills communities –she went to check it out.

“It’s a welcome place, anyone can walk in,” she says now, 14 years later. “They don’t judge you. They make you feel comfortable.”

“And they help you find ways to achieve the things you want to do. They’ve always encouraged my goals.”

And that’s the whole point, say staff at some of the five neighbourhood resource centres that United Way Elgin Middlesex funds in London.

Once people become connected with their local centre – often after coming in for emergency food and basic needs the first time – they have access to a range of programs and services designed to help people meet their goals.

Food is the gateway

“Food is what brings people in,” says Jazz Walmsley, who oversees Glen Cairn’s Basic Needs service, including a United Way-supported produce market that offers free fruits and vegetables to anyone who walks into the Adelaide Street centre. “Once we meet them, we can show them what else they can access here from programs and services to help advocating for their housing and government assistance.”

Having access to fresh produce at local resource centres takes a bite out of food inflation for neighbours in need, says Jazz Walmsley, who heads the London Good Food Project. It’s the neighbourly thing to do. ‘When we do good, good things happen.’

Neighbourhood resource centres serve specific needs of their communities – from after-school homework clubs to employment services, newcomer assistance and mental health support – and often are a first point of contact when people need food, emergency supplies and referral to other agencies.

The wraparound services and programs they offer are strongly aligned with United Way Elgin Middlesex’s goal to reduce and prevent poverty and serve equity-deserving people.

As the region’s largest non-government funder of social services, United Way is investing more than $700,000 to help London’s five neighbourhood resource centres – Glen Cairn, LUSO, Northwest London, South London and Crouch – provide emergency food, basic needs and child and youth programming.

In addition, United Way supports community-building at Mennonite Community Services of Southern Ontario, Muslim Resource Centre, West Elgin Community Health Centre in Elgin County and Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre for Indigenous individuals and families.

‘Laser-focused on partnerships’

The investments are among $6 million distributed by United Way to 40 local agencies offering 52 essential programs and services that reduce and prevent poverty, provide basic needs and improve housing security in London and Middlesex and Elgin counties.

They include emergency shelters that help move people from homelessness to housing, services that develop belonging and leadership for children and youth, and rural community centres that offer free rides to medical appointments

“People may need food to tide them over when there’s more month left than money. They may need homework help, or just a friendly face,” says Kelly Ziegner, president and CEO of United Way Elgin Middlesex.

“United Way Elgin Middlesex is laser-focused on partnerships that reduce and prevent poverty.”

‘Everyone will have dignity walking through the door’

In order to avoid creating more barriers, many neighbourhood resource centres have stopped requiring people to present financial statements or other documentation to prove their poverty before accessing services.

“We always make sure that everyone will have dignity walking through the door,” says Walmsley. “It’s a huge piece of trust. If they have that dignity when they come in, they come back.”

About 75 families participate in children and youth programming at Glen Cairn Neighbourhood Resource Centre, which also advocates for bill-payment relief for about 100 low-income households and supplies 175 households each month with food and emergency supplies.

United Way is also a core funder of London Food Coalition, which operates out of Glen Cairn. It takes in good, excess produce that local farmers and grocery stores would otherwise send to landfill, and redistributes it to people in need, through 22 partner groups such as other neighbourhood resource centres, family cooking programs and faith-based meal programs throughout the region.

‘There is an abundance of food’

Basic needs are increasingly out of reach for many in the region. One in seven local households can’t afford a diet that is nutritious, adequate and culturally acceptable.

But this region has an “abundance of food” – enough for everyone, says Glen Cairn executive director Stanislav Rajic.

“It’s a matter of distribution,” says Rajic. “And about having teaching and learning opportunities for people to be more involved with the food they receive.”

It’s why Glen Cairn focuses so much on food education.

“We embrace the idea of not just food security, but food prosperity,” he says. “We are using our resources to create a food-prosperous community.”

When people arrive in need of emergency food, neighbourhood resource centres are also a gateway to other supports and a sense of community. Here’s how United Way make helps with basic needs and belonging.

‘Strong neighbourhoods’

“Basic needs end up being a gateway that opens up a conversation for us to connect individuals and families to other supports and services in the community,” agrees Elisabete Rodrigues, executive director of LUSO Community Services.

Located near public housing neighbourhoods in Boullee, Huron and Kipps Lane in Northeast London, LUSO specializes in newcomer services, literacy programs, youth programs, cultural sensitivity and anti-racism training for schools, organizations, businesses and landlords.

Rodrigues recalls a family who was new to Canada and moved to the neighbourhood last spring. At first, the teens would “stick to themselves, nervous to engage with others,” she says.

The siblings’ confidence bloomed as they learned more English and got to know other community members.

A year later, they enthusiastically participate in and support the community and are among LUSO’s most reliable youth volunteers, says Rodrigues.

“Stories like that give us hope and let us know that what we do makes a difference,” says Rodrigues, who has been with LUSO for almost 30 years.

Last year, LUSO provided emergency food supplies to more than 4,500 people. The organization also supported more than 5,614 newcomers and immigrants through its settlement programs and nearly 1,700 through its literacy programs. About 4,000 people attended its community engagement activities and 444 youth attended its youth programs.

“Neighborhood resource centres build strong neighborhoods.”

‘Neighbourhood resource centres collectively can accomplish a lot more together than we can individually,’ says Elisabete Rodrigues of LUSO Community Services. United Way helps those collaborations happen.

Helping ‘people feel like they belong here’

Rajic will never forget the first time in Canada he heard his name called out by a neighbour.

Originally a refugee from Bosnia, Rajic felt invisible here, until that passing neighbour recognized him on the street.

Suddenly Rajic felt like he belonged, and that gave him a sense of purpose and community, he says.

Now, in his role as executive director of the Glen Cairn Community Centre, he wants his team to recreate that feeling for others.

“That’s our hope. That people feel like they belong here,” says Rajic.

When a ride means better health

Belonging often begins where isolation ends. And in rural communities, where few services are within walking distance and there’s no bus system, transportation can also be a basic need.

That’s why the West Elgin Community Health Centre started its “Gift-A-Ride,” program to offer people no-cost rides to medical and other “necessity” appointments.

United Way Elgin Middlesex provides the centre with $9,000 in funding for the program, which is essential to the health of many community members, says Barry Fellinger.

“It is such a huge asset to our rural community to be able to get someone to their dialysis, or chemo or social service appointment,” says Fellinger. “If we weren’t able to do that, we’d have a lot of community members unwell and unsafe.

“It’s a godsend, and we are very conscientious about how we spend it.”

Dave Peskar sits in the driver’s seat of a mobility van that helps with the West Elgin Community Health Centre’s Gift-a-Ride program.

Since the pandemic, staff at West Elgin have seen increases in the same needs London’s neighbourhood resource centres have experienced.

Participation in the centre’s Good Food Box program — which offers fresh produce, recipes and basic need supplies for $20 per month — has doubled. And the number of clients experiencing homelessness has increased to between 10 and 15 people each year, up from one or two before the pandemic.

“We’re seeing people who’ve lived in the community all their lives, and now they are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless because their landlords sold buildings and other unexpected situations,” Fellinger said.

To help with housing-crisis needs, United Way Elgin Middlesex last year provided the centre with a one-time $15,000 fund.

“That fund allowed us to address the needs in the moment when there were no other resources to access, says Fellinger, who added the centre now receives $20,000 annualized funding from the City of St. Thomas to cover similar costs.

‘We all measure success differently’

Transportation is just one of many challenges in smaller communities, where poverty and homelessness can often be less visible, but equally complex. With 40 emergency beds, The Inn in St. Thomas also offers on-site support services that include hot meals, weekly medical clinics, mental health and employment counseling, and housing services.

Supported in part with a $75,000 United Way investment in basic needs and advocacy, staff help clients and residents figure out their next steps. Last year The Inn provided 10,000 meals to 244 different people and helped 50 people move from homelessness to housing

“We do get to celebrate successes with people who do find housing, or maybe they’ve kicked an addiction or started a new job,” says executive director Brian Elliot.

“We all measure success differently. But we always want the long-term outcome to be housing-focused.

“That’s when they get to be independent and contribute the way they were always meant to.”

At The Inn, it’s about helping people make homelessness the shortest chapter in their story, says executive director Brian Elliot. How often someone stumbles isn’t as important as how we help them recover.

‘Homelessness is just one chapter’

Supporting people who are struggling can mean setbacks and “multiple” do-overs, Elliot says, “but it is always worth the investment.”

“Everybody that comes into our building has a different story,” he says. “Homelessness is just one chapter.”

Not every resident of The Inn struggles with addiction and mental health. Some have full-time jobs, but escalating costs mean they can’t afford rent and groceries, says program manager Ray Fangrad.

“All it takes is one job loss or an experience where your mental health breaks down. It could be a relationship breakdown or problems with your landlord,” Fangrad says. “There are so many things that can happen.”

Home is security, comfort, a place to call your own – ‘a great feeling after being homeless,’ said Aaron, who now has a place of his own, thanks to The Inn of St. Thomas, a United Way-supported agency.

‘I was the same person, just going through a rough patch’

Initially, Aaron Owl felt “uncertain,” about staying at The Inn.

“I’m not really one for going into situations where I don’t know what to expect,” he says. “It was a little nerve-wracking.”

But he was going through a difficult time after moving to the city for work. He was unemployed and couch-surfing, and it was all taking a toll on his mental health. He needed a fresh start.

Now in his own place, a place he calls home, he wants people to know something about people who The Inn helps – folks like him, who need a bit of support to emerge from tough times.

“I’m a good person, I’ve got a good heart,” he says. “Six months ago, I was still the same person. I was just going through a rough patch in my life.”

Full-circle help

United Way invests in the reality that everyone needs help sometimes, and everyone can give help sometimes.

Back at Glen Cairn, Lisa Synott often spends her days helping others while also finding a supportive community.

Just as she learned to preserve fruits and vegetables from her grandma, who learned it from her own mom, Synott is passing on that knowledge to her kids and her community.

Through the community kitchen, she runs a canning program, where participants learn to make jams, jellies and pickles with produce from the London Food Coalition.

Soups remain her favourite.

“It fills your belly for the day, it’s a way to use up healthy food … and it’s affordable,” says Synott. “I live on a budget and food is not cheap, so I don’t like wasting.”

And when folks arrive at Glen Cairn centre looking for emergency food – as Synott did when she and her family first visited – they will often find, tucked into their bag of fresh vegetables, encouragement and a couple of Soup Whisperer recipes.

Video stories

Dakota HalfpennyUnited