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A selfie of Kemi taken in front of a neutral background.

Working in a united way

Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic began, a group of community organizations from northwest Toronto found themselves sitting around a (virtual) table, trying to figure out how to best serve their communities. Everyone there had already seen the way the pandemic was disproportionately affecting neighbourhoods that were already struggling with poverty, food insecurity, precarious housing and unemployment—neighbourhoods which tended to be home to racialized folks and newcomers to Canada. 

"We knew that marginalised communities were being further marginalised, hugely, as a result of COVID-19," says Kemi Jacobs, executive director of United Way-supported Delta Family Resource Centre, a neighbourhood hub that has been serving the vibrant, tight-knit communities of Humber Summit, Humbermede, Jamestown, Mt. Olive, and Beaumonde Heights for the past 37 years. 

The question was, how could Delta Family and other organizations at the table ramp up their efforts to meet this unprecedented spike in need? And the answer was both surprisingly simple and a unique way for community groups to approach these issues: they'd work together. 

Take hunger, for example. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Kemi's organization has seen a surge in demand for services—with food being the single greatest need. When Delta Family received additional COVID-19 funding, 80 per cent of that money went toward food. But to use that money effectively, they needed to know exactly who needed help. 

Enter those "cluster tables." Convened by United Way and the City of Toronto, these dynamic groups are made up of individuals from agencies, local government, community groups and other GTA organizations. Representatives come together to rapidly identify local issues, troubleshoot, and then respond in a cohesive way—something that doesn’t always happen in the community services sector. United Way is there to facilitate, allowing organizations to lead in the areas they are experts in, so that no one member is responsible for every aspect of their community's evolving needs. 

"With the onset of COVID, everybody was trying to figure out what they could do in their own little silo," Kemi explains. "We do work together, but not traditionally in this way. The decision by the city and United Way to come together and to pool all these agencies has been a real gamechanger."

When it came to food insecurity, the North Etobicoke Cluster Table, which counts Delta Family as a member alongside the Rexdale Community Hub (RCH) and its partners, school boards, Humber College and other agencies, asked on-the-ground organizations to poll their clients to see who needed support. Then, the table created a database that helped streamline distribution of food hampers and hot prepared meals to households in their catchment and recruited people who had previously volunteered with United Way organizations to make deliveries. Delta Family and RCH worked together to expand access for affected families, partnering with agencies across North Etobicoke to get food to those who needed it. 

Ifeyinwa Okoye, a single mom from Nigeria with two young kids, was one of the people who received both groceries and food deliveries, including jollof rice, something she wasn't expecting. "The first time I got it in my food basket, I called my contact at the Delta Family Resource Centre and said, 'Wow, this is food from back home!' It was such a surprise," Okoye told the Toronto Star. "I have been part of the food program since the pandemic. I get groceries and cooked meals and it's been a lifesaver. I can't thank them enough."

Overall, the cluster has successfully delivered almost 40,000 meals and food hampers to residents since March 2020, provided technology grants to help kids with little or no access to computers take part in online learning and brought COVID-19 testing sites to the community—something no one organization would have been able to do on their own.

According to Kemi, this new, more efficient way of working wasn't just necessary during the pandemic—it's a way for agencies to better serve their communities going forward. "Now we need to look at how we can help people recover and move forward from COVID-19, things like supporting students to succeed in school and helping people find jobs," she says. "Our vision is a North Etobicoke where everyone, especially people who are marginalized, thrive and feel that they are an active part of the community."