In the course of the fall campaign, I am often asked, “What makes United Way unique compared to other charities?” I reply by explaining that United Way has the unique ability to build partnerships across the social services sector and combines research and strategy to solve the underlying issues for the long term.
There are many examples of this here in Calgary, including All in for Youth helping youth with a myriad of challenges to finish school, Enough for All a community-driven strategy to end poverty, and the just completed Calgary Mental Health and Addiction Strategy. United Way has been a leader in creating and implementing these and other vital strategies involving multiple agencies, community organizations, and levels of government.
Since 75% of United Way’s programs touch Indigenous People, underpinning all of these initiatives is the United Way Indigenous People’s Strategy, guided by the knowledge of Elders and consistent with Reconciliation and a path for healing, trust, respect and shared understanding.
It is wonderful to see the United Way of Calgary and Area at work, with the level of teamwork and collaboration that is really having a positive impact.
All of these strategies come together in the Community Hubs initiative. Based on analysis, it became clear that poverty and social isolation exist in clusters in Calgary, where incomes are lower, and residents (many of whom are newcomers) don’t know how to access supports and services. In 2017, United Way partnered with the City of Calgary and Rotary Clubs to create five community hubs in Calgary.
“The true power of Community Hubs is in their engagement of residents as leaders and their ability to serve as both a central gathering place and a referral source for community services and resources.”
Community Hubs provide residents with the unique opportunity to access a variety of supports from where they live, while connecting with their neighbours around mutual interests and priorities. The true power of Community Hubs is in their engagement of residents as leaders and their ability to serve as both a central gathering place and a referral source for community services and resources.
On October 6th, I had the opportunity to take part in a virtual tour of the North of McKnight Community Hub, which serves residents in the northeast communities of Calgary. What an amazing conversation that was! I had the opportunity to meet the leaders of the four partner agencies that comprise the Hub: Trellis Society, YMCA, the Calgary Public Library, and the Genesis Centre, all housed within the Genesis Centre for Community Wellness.
The programs available are rich and diverse – I will outline these briefly, though it is how the partners work together to be a focal point for real community that is powerful. To give you a sense of just how integrated the hub is into the community, pre-pandemic there were 2 million individual visits per year!
Those visits could be for the dozens of sports and fitness opportunities, particularly important for young people, free “Swim to Survive” swimming lessons for elementary students, children’s cooking classes (now on-line), social events and games, cultural events, tutoring and English language training. The 1000 Voices program, operated by Trellis, is heavily focused on the community’s needs, including a large immigrant and newcomer population – creating literacy, skills development, free tax clinics, education and social connections for all residents who access programs and services. The Library at the Hub is the second busiest in all of Calgary, behind only the Downtown branch. Not only does the Library help people access books and other resources, but also computers and help in filling out forms, and space to collaborate on projects.
Much of the support, led by the on-site City of Calgary community social worker and Hub Site Lead, involves assessing community needs, identifying leaders and barriers they might face in developing their capacity and working with the community to develop local initiatives that meet key needs. These can range from poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, and mental health… the Hub provides so much more.
“…“community” is more than just a shared geography – it is a sense of belonging, fellowship and mutual caring with others.”
The approach is really a “wrap-around” – it’s like having an instant family! One can walk-in or be contacted by one of the Hub Ambassadors, who take the time to understand the complex needs of the person or family and can make the connections, navigate the complex systems to access help, and provide a community to engage with and get ongoing support from. It’s the difference between a transaction for a specific and short-term government support (if you are fortunate enough to have the IT and speak the language), versus the Hub concept of capability and relationship building so people can thrive and contribute.
I heard many powerful stories of the transformational power of the Hub, and its “whole person” mindset:
- A man who needed short term help with food, but with a deeper conversation it also became clear that he had no means of accessing job opportunities; with a donated cell phone from a Hub partner, he found part time work and later well-paying full time work
- An isolated and lonely woman, seeking contact and support, who had a gift for art that was transformed with the help of the Hub into a thriving on-line network of friends and neighbours who meet regularly to learn art techniques from this resident and share their creativity with each other
- A woman who participated in a baking course at the Hub, and put her new knowledge and passion to work by starting her own business in the community with the support of business skills coaching
I think that “community” is more than just a shared geography – it is a sense of belonging, fellowship and mutual caring with others. This is what the North of McKnight Community Hub has been so effective at with the vision of the United Way of Calgary.
Retired, Shell Canada President and Country Chair