Edmonton residents are discovering their very own method to take care of the pains of the pandemic

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Author of the article:

Elise Stolte

Publication date:

Dec 24, 2020December 24, 2020Read for 4 minutes Join the conversation William Johansen William Johansen created this mailbox for the neighborhood kids to send their letters to Santa Claus. This year he wrote and sent personal responses to almost 100 children. Photo by David Bloom /Postal media

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This year surprised me with stories of generous and original gifts.

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There were the big ones, like the anonymous donor who pledged more than $ 1 million to fund life-saving drug treatment for an Edmonton child, and the smaller, more creative ones, like the man who buys white running shoes and gets kids to Decorate them with hopeful decorations Messages for hospital workers.

Or William Johansen, a restaurant manager in Mill Woods who lost his job when COVID-19 closed the grocery kiosks at NAIT. This year he set up a Christmas mailbox for the neighborhood children in his front yard. He wrote and delivered around 100 personalized responses to encourage them and keep a little magic this year.

Some people really let their creativity run wild.

But to feel humble at how consistently some people show up and give, even if they have very little of their own, I turn to the group YEG Community Response to COVID19. Something new, yet old, is happening in this loosely organized Facebook group – it’s a return to community-based care.

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For Renee Vaugeois, executive director of the John Humphrey Center for Peace and Human Rights, this is another step towards decolonizing charity work, or at least understanding how a new approach can empower it.

It’s about people helping each other, not top-down handouts. It has harnessed the creativity and flexibility of one-off effort, organized it, and brought several large institutions such as the Edmonton Food Bank to the side to keep it going.

Vaugeois created the site on a Friday evening in March, just as the spring lock came in. By Saturday morning, 3,000 Edmonton residents had joined. At the end of the day it was 11,000 and the messages and inquiries flew. “It was crazy. I needed help,” she said. She recruited a dozen others to moderate and used all of her John Humphrey connections to gain support.

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Now it’s a free flowing system where needs are submitted and posted on the site and people donate or deliver meals, food baskets, clothing and other basic necessities several times a day. 35,000 needs were met in nine months.

People give what they can and get to know each other. It is fluid, with many ethno-cultural groups, and sometimes the needy become those who give. An indigenous grandmother who needed help because she lived in a hotel during the first wave and looked after six children is one of Vaugeois’ most consistent shipping helpers today.

Another woman who cooks dozens of meals in her kitchen once a week to complement what the chalkboard gives to families is a welfare recipient herself. She spends a day working hard and turning donations into celebrations. She then spends two days regaining her strength, said the woman, who was afraid to use her name in case a government official decides she can work and take away welfare benefits.

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13-year-old Mannat Mann and her family are one of hundreds who have prepared 25 meals at home for the needy.  The efforts were inspired and supported by the YEG Community Response to COVID19 Facebook group.  Photo provided by Varinder Bhullar. 13-year-old Mannat Mann and her family are one of hundreds who have prepared 25 meals at home for the needy. The efforts were inspired and supported by the YEG Community Response to COVID19 Facebook group. Photo provided by Varinder Bhullar.

The need is huge, said Dicky Dikamba, whose black-French organization CANAVUA has started a mobile food bank truck to help. Families who cannot find work or whose jobs do not earn enough to support a large family need more than a monthly basket of groceries. “If we bring some people food and they almost cry, it breaks my heart.”

In recent years, the John Humphrey Center has been pursuing the approach to community justice by identifying natural advocates (people who others turn to for help and advice anyway) and training them to be more effective. That means giving them inside knowledge of how justice, education, health and other systems work.

That’s why Vaugeois set up this community-based answer so quickly, she said. A typical Western approach that creates large, often rigid institutions can fail people. During past natural disasters like the Fort McMurray fire and the High River flood, people with mobility issues, mental health problems, legal status insecurity, and language barriers have struggled to get the help they needed to recover.

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The big institutions are often set up “criminally and bureaucratically” so that nobody gets more than their share, said Vaugeois. But identification requirements and extensive paperwork “make things so undignified and so inaccessible. They don’t take into account the shame factor that is behind many of the needs out there. “

With this new community-based approach, there is self-control. It’s not perfect, but donors talk to each other and learn who is trying to cheat the system and who needs the hand because they are already giving as much as they can, she said. “Ultimately, it’s about holding each other.”

It’s fascinating to see the site in action. On Wednesday a new member asked for a ride and it was offered in two minutes. Someone asked a question about government support, and a meat shop owner offered free Christmas dinner. “Smile. Do the best you can,” he said, offering meat, sauce, potatoes and vegetables.

He definitely got a lot of smiles. This year was full of changes, full of heartache, but also something new. I hope it goes on.

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