Reaching Out During COVID-19

ECF funds expanded outreach staff at Westend Seniors Activity Centre to design 15 new online classes and deliver thousands of friendly phone calls and emails to socially isolated seniors

Seniors in Edmonton are learning to use the video-conferencing platform Zoom to stay social and active during the pandemic, thanks to the Westend Seniors Activity Centre (WSAC) and Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF).

Kaye Langager was using several in-person programs at WSAC before they were cancelled because of COVID-19. The centre began to roll out online programs and courses via Zoom, but many seniors were unfamiliar with that technology.

“As a senior, it was quite a learning curve because up until a few weeks ago I had never even heard of Zoom before, and now I can’t go and get any one-on-one training,” says Langager.

Edmonton’s charitable sector has been hit hard by the pandemic. Organizations like WSAC are especially vulnerable because of the high risk the pandemic poses to older populations. WSAC is designed to operate as a “high school for seniors,” according to executive director Dr. Haidong Liang, but all in-person classes, meals, and physical programs have been put on hold.

The Centre prepared to offer its services online, but lacked the staff to make that transition and to assist seniors with the new technology.

“Outreach does a lot of one-on-one services for the most vulnerable seniors. I only have one outreach worker and you can imagine the amount of work she faced is just huge,” Liang says.

Edmonton Community Foundation provided a grant to help WSAC hire temporary employees to handle the increased workload. Three weeks in, and the Centre’s newly expanded outreach staff has designed 15 new online classes and delivered 3,000 friendly phone calls and 5,000 e-mails to seniors. They have also created programs delivered in different languages to ensure accessibility for seniors of many backgrounds.

“Social isolation is a major problem for our city’s seniors, especially when English might be their second language,” said Craig Stumpf-Allen, ECF’s Director of Grants and Community Engagement.  “We knew that a little support for Westend Seniors Activity Centre would have a tremendous impact on the mental health of its clients.”

ECF seeded the COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund (RRF) on March 25 with $500,000 of its discretionary dollars. Since then, the RRF has had more than a million dollars to allocate to the community through contributions from donors and the wider community. To date, ECF has provided a combined total of $1,072,150 from various granting streams to support Edmonton’s charitable sector through the pandemic.

“We have members who had no technology knowledge before this pandemic. And through this support from Edmonton Community Foundation, we’re able to hire the staff to support her,” says Liang, in reference to his outreach worker.

For seniors including Langager, this means she can continue going to her “high school for seniors” and stay connected and active during the pandemic.

“I’m getting ready to sign on for more classes now that I know how easy it is and it’s not scaring me half to death,” laughs Langager.

Learn more about ECF’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic here.