It Takes a Village

Five social service agencies banded together to provide vital supports to meet community needs

Tucked away in a quiet strip mall in northeast Edmonton, the C5 community hub is an unassuming locale. From the outside, it appears to be an ordinary office environment, with community members coming and going throughout the day. But what’s going on inside is far from typical. Home to five social agencies, each serving a specific niche within the community, the centre is an innovative model of collaboration that’s changing the way social services are developed and delivered to families in Edmonton.

“What really sets C5 apart is the way these five organizations can leverage resources and work together to eliminate barriers,” says Mohamad Elsaghir, director for the hub. “We’re working to surround individuals with support and really respond to the needs they have, as they arise.”

From a young age, Elsaghir began learning the ins and outs of the nonprofit world. While he was growing up, Elsaghir’s mother worked at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, so he had a strong understanding of the individuals and communities who accessed its services. Now, as the director of C5, he guides a unique collaboration between the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, Boyle Street Community Services, Norwood Child & Family Resource Centre and the Terra Centre for Teen Parents.

“The idea for C5 came about when the executive directors of these organizations came together a few years ago. There was an appetite for collaboration among them, and they were determined to find a better way to work together,” he says. “So they formed this collaboration with the mandate of being responsive and supporting people quickly.”

While each member organization of the hub served a specific audience, the executive directors recognized a significant amount of overlapping need between each group. Working together would not only create financial efficiencies for each organization, but would also create a more supportive environment for those walking through the hub’s front doors.

“What we find in C5 is that people are less traumatized or not having to re-traumatize themselves when they’re looking to access services,” Elsaghir says. “It’s as relationship- based as possible — if we recognize that someone could benefit from another organization’s work, they’re given a warm referral to other people and services in the hub as needed.”

When discussions about the hub began in 2015, each of the five founding executive directors involved was clear on the mandate and intention of this new space. Over the years, as staff have changed and new executive directors have stepped into their roles, they’ve continued on the same trajectory, keeping the emerging needs of the community in mind above all else.

Meghan Klein, executive director of the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN), is one of the most recent additions to the C5 team. She was quickly brought into the fold after joining EMCN in the spring of 2020, and almost immediately realized that C5 was truly something special.

“C5 is a partnership unlike any other that I’ve been a part of,” says Klein. “I’ve found it to be a group without agenda or ego. It’s a very supportive environment that is able to morph into what the community wants.”

One of the most significant benefits, Klein notes, is the speed at which C5 is able to mobilize. Guided by feedback from frontline workers in the hub, Klein and the other executive directors are able to make informed decisions about the services and supports needed in the community.

“Our frontline workers can very quickly see the needs that are arising in the community, and we can then very quickly respond,” she says, noting that the C5 model encourages the leadership team to consider new ways to adapt and serve the community. “The default answer to any question or request is, ‘Yes,’ or ‘Why not?’ We’re able to go beyond traditional limitations we may have had.”

Since officially opening its doors in 2018, the C5 northeast hub has seen steady growth in the number of community members it serves. In its first year, approximately 1,500 Edmontonians accessed services through the northeast hub. By 2020, Elsaghir estimates, that number had grown to nearly 6,000.

While many of the centre’s more traditional in-person services such as language lessons or youth group meetings were cancelled or altered during the coronavirus pandemic, new services were also developed. In the early days of the pandemic, frontline workers recognized a need for community members to have computer access to attend school or work online, and put out a call for laptop donations. The hub also opened a new essentials market, offering fresh food and pantry items, baby supplies, smudge kits and other supplies available by delivery or pick-up.

“We’re not a food-security organization, but we’re able to work with other partners, like the Food Bank, to meet these kinds of needs as we see them coming up,” says Elsaghir. “The C5 partnership is formally these five agencies working together, but really, we don’t stop there. We just want to encourage that collaboration as much as we can.”

Elsaghir, who has been with the hub since it opened, first as a manager and more recently as its director, is pleased with the hub’s success to date, but sees great potential in where it’s headed.

“The beauty in the community hub model is that it’s community-led, community-run, and here to build and strengthen in the long term,” he says. “I can’t predict how this will look a few years down the road, because it’s not up to me. But we will keep growing and supporting people in as many ways as we can.”