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Human services come together to cover increased community need during pandemic

As the town builds a volunteer database, 211 hires more people to handle spike in calls, and area agencies gather at a roundtable to form a community of support
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Erika Engel/CollingwoodToday

The consequences of the COVID-19 weigh heavily on the economy, society, and community, and Collingwood’s support lines are lifting more than usual as they work to share the burdens of people caught in the middle.

“Our call volumes are 40 to 75 per cent higher than normal every day,” said Pam Hillier, executive director of Community Connection/211 Central East Ontario. “Depending on if the government makes an announcement, we tend to get more calls.”

The 211 system is Ontario-wide and provides information to callers on what services are available to meet their needs – from food banks to emergency financial help for bills and government support programs. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, their duties have expanded and the services available to people are ever-changing.

“One of the biggest challenges is keeping up with all the new information,” said Hillier.

The provincial and federal governments make announcements every day, local services have also adapted to a physically-distant service model.

In the beginning, calls coming in to 211 were about food access. Not necessarily from people who couldn’t afford food, but people trying to figure out how to get food without going to a grocery store.

“It really wasn’t food that was the problem, it was just learning a new way to access it,” said Hillier.

Soon after the calls switched to questions about financial support options, and those came in droves soon after the federal government announced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

“The pandemic has kind of flipped everything around,” said Hillier. “All of a sudden there are financial supports everywhere, you just have to know how to access them. Before, there weren’t any.”

Lately, 211 has been receiving more calls looking for mental health services.

“Mental health agencies that did walk-ins, at first, they just shut down, and now they’ve come up with ways to do virtual and phone-in service,” said Hillier. “It’s new to do it in this virtual environment. It’s a different way to use the resources together.”

From April 4-10, 211 Central East Ontario received 78 calls from Collingwood residents (about 30 per cent of calls are not getting through due to volume) and the top need was income support followed by housing then food.

From April 11-17, there were 63 calls from Collingwood with the top needs being housing and income followed by mental health and food support.

211 Ontario has received funding to bring on more staff, and Hillier said that will help bring on more staff for all the call centres.

There is also a coordinated effort to connect those in need in the community to those who want to help.

Jennifer Parker, the project manager for Collingwood’s Parks, Recreation and Culture Department has adapted her role during the pandemic to help coordinate volunteers.

She has been working on a volunteer database called Collingwood Together where volunteers in the community can sign up and let the town know what their skills are so they can be called on when needed.

“We have this community that has all this care … people wanted to volunteer but they didn’t know what to do or what it looks like,” said Parker.

Within a couple of weeks the town had more than 150 volunteers sign up to be included in the database.

“It reaffirms what a kind and compassionate community we have,” said Parker.

The volunteers now become part of 211's resource database for those who call in.

Hillier and her team at 211 will provide the town with information about an individual in town who needs help from a volunteer, whether it's to get groceries picked up or a phone call for someone who is lonely.

Parker gets an alert and there’s permission given on both sides to share the information for the sake of connecting a volunteer with someone in need.

Collingwood’s local Rotary Clubs have come forward to be part of the Collingwood Together effort and they are the ones connecting volunteers with individuals in need.

Finally, 211 staff will follow up with the person who called in to make sure they had their need met by the volunteers.

Hillier said it’s early days yet working with a volunteer database, and even including things like local businesses offering delivery on their resource database. She guessed there will be needs such as helping someone order online, troubleshooting when a certain type of food becomes scarce, and navigating some of the new online and call-in services.

“We’ll see as the needs come along,” said Hillier. “We expect this to last a long time for us … the recovery will be difficult on people.”

She said it's important for businesses, agencies, and service providers to check the 211 website to make sure it has the latest information on how and what services are being offered.

“If you’re doing something different, see what’s there and suggest an update if necessary,” said Hillier.

Parker is also encouraging people to reach out to 211 if they have any needs.

“If you’re not calling an ambulance, but you have a need, call 211,” said Parker. “There might be a public perception that if we’re practising physical distancing then you can’t get any services, but that’s not the case, we need you to connect to 211.”

Parker’s other new project has been coordinating round tables with agencies in the area providing human services like health care, education, housing, disability support, churches, mental health and counselling, career counselling, and social services.

A group of representatives from more than 50 such agencies has met a few times now to discuss their response during the COVID-19 pandemic and support each other.

“I think it was really significant and I think it was really important for everyone,” said Parker. “For organizations to provide support to one another at a time when things are changing and it's so dynamic … provides consistency.”

If you’re looking for anything from social connection to financial help to counselling, call 211 with your need and they’ll connect you with people and services in your community.

If you'd like to sign up as a volunteer with Collingwood Together, visit the website here.

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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 13 years of experience as a local journalist
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