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Marjorie Bencz, executive director of the Edmonton Food Bank, says that in mid-March, the food bank relocated 20 of its food hamper pick-up locations literally overnight.

How four MacEwan alumni are supporting our city’s most vulnerable

May 28, 2020 | Society, Health
Marjorie Bencz (Voluntary Sector Management, ’90) is no stranger to crisis. One of her earliest experiences with the Edmonton Food Bank was as a volunteer in late July 1987 when a devastating tornado ripped through the eastern parts of the city.

In the years since, as the food bank’s executive director, she has guided the organization through its response to other financial, medical and natural disasters. Even so, Marjorie says there’s really no template when it comes to navigating a crisis.

“We look at what’s happening, the best practices we can use and then we grab them as quickly as we can,” she says.

In mid-March, that meant relocating 20 food hamper pick-up locations – many of them churches with older volunteers or limited space that couldn’t accommodate physical distancing – literally overnight.

“We are very decentralized and use distribution points throughout the city to meet the needs of people where they live,” Marjorie explains. “We shuffled about 5,000 people during that first week to make sure they got service.”

The food bank already had many food safety protocols in place, but they also installed plexiglass shields in the client services area, temporarily shut down job-search services, limited the number of volunteers in the facility to accommodate physical distancing and looked for ways to encourage people to donate directly online – all while serving 18 per cent more clients than they had in the previous March.

“People have been really amazing,” says Marjorie, who received MacEwan University’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2003. “Volunteers recognized that we had a different kind of need and are helping out, and people are making online contributions to help make up for fundraising events that had to be cancelled.”

We've seen people bringing out the best in each other, being there for each other, standing up and advocating in a kind and gentle way.
—Krysta Fitzgerald

Krysta Fitzgerald (Social Work, ’17), agrees that the COVID-19 situation has shone a bright light on many good things in our community.

“It’s one thing to say you’re a values-based organization, but these are the times when we get to live it,” says the deputy executive director of Boyle Street Community Services. “Over the past several weeks, we’ve seen people bringing out the best in each other, being there for each other, standing up and advocating in a kind and gentle way for the people who might not have the voice or confidence or ability to speak up for themselves.”

Krysta, who leads a team that serves the children, youth and families of Boyle Street’s community, says everyone jumped on board to help wherever they could – often being redeployed across the organization to help in different departments, including taking on shifts at the Expo Centre when it began housing people who are homeless.

For Krysta’s team, which serves Boyle Street’s nine sites for at-risk children and youth, the focus was on finding ways to reduce feelings of isolation.

“We’ve really pushed ourselves to adapt and get on board with technology, and to find ways to help families stay connected,” says Krysta. In spite of the challenges, she says, the situation has presented an incredible amount of meaning and learning.

“We’re asking ourselves a lot of questions like how we can be even more nimble and responsive for the next wave or the next time a new crisis hits. What have we started doing that we want to keep doing after the pandemic? What do we need to continue on that trajectory of learning?”

Rebecca Stiller (Bachelor of Child and Youth Care, ’15) is asking exactly the same questions. The MacEwan alum and sessional faculty member is also an associate manager in the family wellness program at Chimo Youth Retreat Centre, where she oversees kinship care – grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and other relatives who step forward to care for their relatives’ children.

“We know the biggest risk for our families is a lack of support – the more people families have to help them out and bolster them up, the better off they are,” she says. “So we offer intensive home family support – helping children, caregivers and parents in our kinship program build new skills and access resources.”

Because child and youth care work is very relational, explains Rebecca, coordinators are in families’ homes anywhere between one and five days every week – something that suddenly became much more challenging in the COVID era.

It’s why Rebecca’s team was quick to shift the way they offered services, providing emotional support virtually; creating weekly individualized care packages with activities, resources, gift cards and food hampers for families; and finding creative ways to facilitate FaceTime visits between children and their parents.

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“Is it ideal? No,” says Rebecca. "But we have been creative, perhaps in ways that we wouldn't have been otherwise and it has been heartening to see people reach out to one another – to see relationships deepening even when we can't be in the same room."

It has been heartening to see people reach out to one another – to see relationships deepening even when we can’t be in the same room.
—Rebecca Stiller

Physical distancing has also had a big impact on the way Brenden Lindsey (Bachelor of Social Work, ’19) works with patients in the hematology and general internal medicine units at the University of Alberta Hospital. As a medical social worker, Brenden helps newly diagnosed patients with everything from housing, transportation and legal issues to benefits, medication costs and caregiver support.  

“People come to us in some of their most vulnerable times and I’m humbled and privileged to help,” he says. “In the hematology unit, in particular, people stay for about 30 days, so we have a lot of time to develop strong working relationships with them.”  

Wearing a mask at all times and standing six feet away while helping patients navigate forms and applications can be a barrier in developing those relationships, says Brenden, but the most difficult situations, he adds, have been seeing patients receive a diagnosis and needing to stay in hospital without visitors. “We try to fill the void, but we know it’s not the same,” he says. 

Even though he knows they can never take the place of patients’ family members and friends, Brenden says that it feels good to be of service. “It isn’t always easy to go to work with everything that’s going on, but I feel incredibly grateful to not only be employed, but to really, truly enjoy my job. It’s work I need – and want – to do.” 

That is a sentiment Marjorie, Krysta and Rebecca all agree with – supporting our city’s most vulnerable is work they are all passionate about. And while they know that navigating what COVID-19 means to the critical services they provide is far from over, they are proud to see the way the community has responded, so far. 

“I think there's a reason that we choose to call Edmonton home,” says Marjorie. “And being surrounded by so many great people who are reaching out to help one another is a big part of that.”  

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