Friendship Centre continues to serve

Ken Kellar

It can’t be business as normal, but the United Native Friendship Centre (UNFC) is committed to looking after those who rely on their services.

Like many other organizations in Canada and across the world, the UNFC has seen the way it operates impacted by the restrictions put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, and even though the doors might be closed, UNFC executive director Sheila McMahon said the staff is still doing what they can to help.

“We’ve had to close the door to the public in all three of our facilities,” McMahon explained.

“Our Head Start program has been closed due to this, and our other programs and services like our group programs and our youth and our seniors and cooking programs, those have all been canceled. But we are designated as an essential service, meaning we help in terms of our food bank and Emergency Services.”

McMahon said one example of an emergency service that people can access at the UNFC is if they’re facing an eviction, especially during the current COVID-19 restrictions in Ontario. The Ontario Governemnt annouced two weeks ago that no new eviction orders would be issued during the pandemic, and scheduled evictions would be halted.

“So we are providing emergency services and we just ask people to phone and leave a message and then we get back to them,” McMahon said.

With the UNFC staff also following recent orders from the provincial government to limit gatherings to five people or fewer, McMahon said the staff is doing what they can to be accessible to the community who relies on them.

“We only have a few, like under five staff coming in to the main office at one time and in order to service the community,” she said.

“Also for all of our programs, because we have over 20, the employees that are running those programs, they are contacting their clients individually. They’re making sure that our clients have support, because we have mental health programs. . .and we feel it’s important to check up on all the clients. So the staff have been doing that on a regular basis, and when somebody does need food and if they contact one of the program workers, then the worker comes in and gets it for them and we deliver as well.”

McMahon noted that they see people in the community are struggling due to COVID-19 and the restrictions put in place to slow its spread, with some groups facing more challenges than others.

“Our lifelong care program, they call the seniors on a regular basis to see how they’re doing, because we want to make sure they’re taken care of,” McMahon said.

“When this all first started, they couldn’t even buy toilet paper and stuff, so we were trying to get them those essential needs that they have and food because we didn’t want them going out in public either. And we just want to make sure that they’re being checked on, because some of our people don’t have families living in this community.”

Of course, as an organization that is in some contact with people, however limited, the UNFC is making sure it follows all protocols around sanitization and cleanliness, because their staff still need to go home at the end of the day.

“It’s important too that we support our staff,” she said.

“That’s really important that we’re following the guidelines and we have our pandemic policy in place to keep our staff safe as well, because they have families, they have children at home. We know we are an essential service and we want to provide that, but we’re trying to provide that in the safest way possible.”

McMahon noted that even in challenging times, the staff is close-knit and still able to share a laugh together.

“Our staff are really supportive of each other, we just all support each other,” she explained.

“Even my supervisors, we meet once a week and we meet downstairs in our classroom and we each have a table and we’re six feet away from each other, so we’re taking all the precautions.”

However, there still are concerns as the effects of the COVID-19 prevention measures continue to be felt. McMahon notes that she’s worried about how long the financial aid that has been promised by different levels of government will take to get to those who need it the most.

“We’ve got people that have been laid off, that have lost their jobs, that are phoning us and we’re not going to say no,” she said.

“We’re going to support the community as much as we can, so I think it’s the timing, how fast are people going to be able to get that financial support that concerns us. We’re in touch with our provincial office, with our funders, and so far our provincial funders and federal funders are still supporting us, we don’t have to shut our doors.”

McMahon also noted that the UNFC has a good working relationship with the RainyRiver District Social Services Administration Board, who will be in charge of distributing some funding that has been recently announced by governments throughout the district.

However, even as one potential problem is addressed, there’s always a new challenge to face before long.

“The only other thing we’re kind of worried about is our food bank is getting really low,” McMahon said.

“So we’re trying to order from wholesalers and we’re hoping to get some larger orders in this week, because we don’t believe we should be going to our two major stores. The shelves are empty to begin with so we won’t do that to the community. We’re just trying the best we can to get food in.”