Londoners are coming together as a community to support those who are on the frontlines fighting and providing essential services during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Over the past month, COVID-19 has had devastating impacts on our city, the country, and across the globe. Social distancing and extensive closures to schools, non-essential businesses and organizations, and even parks, means a lot has changed.

But one thing has not changed – individuals and organizations in London continue to show up for each other and support those who are on the front lines, fighting this pandemic.

Frontline workers hold up signs reminding people to stay home.
Staff at Victoria Hospital remind people to stay home. / Photo via Twitter / @LHSCCanada

Essential workers are sacrificing their health and safety, and the health and safety of their families, to provide necessary services and resources for the rest of us. Essential workers include doctors, nurses, public health professionals, first responders, grocery store workers, farmers, delivery drivers, mail carriers, transit workers, garbage collectors, truck drivers, and many, many, more.

Many organizations and individuals in London are working to support essential workers. Whether providing a safe way to get to work, donating or manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE), or serving healthy meals, Londoners are stepping up in big ways.

Providing Transportation and Housing to Essential Workers

Sometimes overlooked when thinking of frontline workers, those making less than a living wage and working in grocery stores, delivery services, and social services are exposing themselves to the virus while providing vital services. 

Many low-income essential workers don’t have access to personal transportation. Changes to LTC schedules, and concerns over the inability to maintain social distancing on public transit, add additional challenges. Some low-income essential workers are unable to get to work without walking long distances, keeping them away from their families and exposing them to greater risks.

To help, the Big Bike Giveaway and the Squeaky Wheel Bike Co-Op have partnered to provide free bikes to low-income essential workers. Big Bike Giveaway usually hosts a large, day-long event each year in the fall. However, with current physical distancing restrictions and the demand for safe transportation, they have worked quickly to get as many bikes as possible ready.

A frontline workers sits on a free bike at Squeaky Wheel Bike Co-op
An essential worker who works in the banking industry in London, ON receives a free bike to get to work safely. / Photo via Facebook / @BigBikeGiveaway

Monica Hodgson, Co-Founder of the Big Bike Giveaway, feels for these workers. “They don’t want to take public transit. They’re scared to be around other people.” Hodgson said, noting that those who have received the bikes have been incredibly grateful. “It’s an emotional thing for a lot of people. We’re helping them keep their distance, be healthy and safe, and helping them just get to work safely.”

Hodgson credits London’s active cycling community for prompting the initiative. “We received a lot of phone calls and a lot of emails.” Hodgson said, “The idea actually came from cycling advocates in the city.” Those who qualify are invited to pick up their bike at the Squeaky Wheel Bike Co-op in Old East Village. Public health protocols, including disinfecting, social distancing, and staggered pick-ups, are carefully followed.

A frontline worker stands next to her new bike from Big Bike Giveaway and Squeaky Wheel Bike Co-op.
An essential worker who works in the food industry in London, ON receives a free bike to get to work safely. / Photo via Facebook / @BigBikeGiveaway

Londoners who want to support the program are encouraged to donate used, repairable bikes at the City of London EnviroDepots or support their GoFundMe, which allows them to buy parts to fix up bikes in need of repair. Essential workers with a lower income can now apply online for a free bike to help them travel safely to work.

Transportation isn’t the only concern for frontline workers. Facing severe PPE shortages, health care workers and first responders are trying to stay separate from their families to avoid exposing them to the infection. In response, a group of Londoners have created a website called “London Helps” – aimed at helping the helpers. In addition to collecting PPE donations, they are connecting frontline workers with alternative housing options, including empty rentals, hotels, Airbnbs, RVs, or other spaces they can stay safely for free or heavily discounted rates. 

Addressing Resource Shortages

With overwhelming global challenges due to shortages of crucial supplies, many organizations are retooling their operations to manufacture PPE and hand sanitizer, or have donated surplus goods to help frontline workers stay safe.

Western University’s Faculty of Engineering and Schulich Medicine and Dentistry is manufacturing and distributing Health Canada approved low-cost medical face shields to hospitals and frontline workers. The face shields create a clear barrier, prolonging the life of surgical masks, which is key during shortages. Other local educational institutions, including Fanshawe College and the London District Catholic School Board, as well as local businesses and organizations, have donated excess supplies to local hospitals and frontline workers.

A stack of 3D-printed medical face shiles is ready to head to frontline workers
University Machine Services is printing low-cost medical face shields and providing them to frontline workers. / Photo via Western University Media Relations

VERGE Capital Startup Fund investee Carmina de Young, with help from MLD Solutions Inc., is pivoting from producing fashion garments to creating much-needed resources for health care and social service professionals working on the front line.

“Our initial outreach, when we started to ponder this, was to community agencies. Social service agencies have frontline workers that don’t have protective equipment,” said Lina Bowden, Partner, Carmina de Young. “What we were hearing was that social service agencies weren’t even on the radar for being able to access protective equipment. Our focus was very much local and intentionally put this out as a London outreach to try and support the community agencies, healthcare providers, and frontline workers that are local.”

Carmina de Young is making and selling the gowns and masks at cost and MLD Solutions is donating their time to provide project management, communications, technology support. 

Two essential workers model masks and gowns.
Carmina de Young and MLD Solutions Inc. are providing gowns and masks at cost to frontline workers, focusing on those who provide necessary social services to vulnerable populations. / Photo provided by Carmina de Young and MLD Solutions Inc.

Making a change from fashion to medical garments is no easy task and has required support from many community groups to help navigate the necessary certifications and provide connections to frontline workers, suppliers, and government support. The support from other organizations, including Goodwill Industries Ontario Great Lakes, London-Middlesex Primary Care Alliance, Ontario Centres of Excellence, TechAlliance of Southwestern Ontario, and Pillar Nonprofit Network has been crucial to being able to provide these resources to the community.

Community and socially-minded at their core, figuring out how to help the community in a crisis came naturally to both organizations. “It aligned with what we do, even before all of this,” said Mona Lam-Deslippe, CEO & Founder of MLD Solutions.

A mannequin posed with gowns and mask for essential workers.
Moving from producing fashion garments to masks and gowns has been a community effort. / Photo provided by Carmina de Young and MLD Solutions Inc.

As for impact, Lam-Deslippe is focused on supporting the community. “First and foremost the safety of our community at this time is absolutely key. And helping people feel safe and get through this pandemic as safely as possible.” She adds, “It’s also good for the community to feel that there is community support. It’s a heartwarming feeling.”

Other experienced sewists are also chipping in to deal with the shortage of protective clothing and accessories. Members of the Grand Theatre’s wardrobe and props teams have been working with the London/Middlesex branch of Canada Sews to craft masks and scrub caps to distribute to frontline workers, ranging from hospital staff to grocery store workers.

Keeping Essential Workers Fed

Several local restaurants, including The Root Cellar, Yoda’s Kitchen, Dos Tacos, London Wine Bar, and Plant Matter Kitchen, are providing meals to frontline workers, dropping them off at local hospitals or frontline social services. 

An opportunity to support small businesses as well as frontline workers, these community meals food funds ensure local restaurants are able to continue operating and paying staff while also contributing to community efforts. Many of them are collecting donations from the community to drive their efforts.

Yoda Olinyk, Chef and Owner of Yoda’s Kitchen, created her Free Food Fund in response to the need for healthy, plant-based food during the pandemic. “As a professional chef and entrepreneur, this crisis has created a lot of anxiety. Will I lose my livelihood? Will my business be able to survive? But most of all, it’s caused me to fear losing my ability to cook for people. Cooking is my passion, and providing healthy food is my gift. I want to be of service if I can be,” Olinyk said when asked about her motivation to start the fund.

Bags of meals in the back of the care for essential workers
A delivery of meals from Yoda’s Kitchen’s Free Food Fund. / Photo via Instagram / @yodaskitchen

Londoners can donate funds directly, and each dollar goes to purchasing raw ingredients for healthy meals distributed to people in need. You can nominate someone – whether a frontline worker or someone in need – or request a meal, no questions asked.

Meeting Growing Needs

Despite these efforts, many organizations are struggling to keep up with the demand for their services and keep supplies on their shelves. The United Way Elgin Middlesex is maintaining a list of urgent agency needs with specific items each organization needs community members to donate. The list is updated regularly and contains instructions on how to donate safely to over 25 local social services. 

Organizations are also looking for virtual volunteers. For those able to volunteer time, visit Pillar Nonprofit Network or SPARK Ontario’s volunteer portals to find opportunities where you can lend a hand. 

Remember, we’re in this together!

This post has been powered by Pillar Nonprofit Network. Pillar Nonprofit Network strengthens individuals, organizations and enterprises invested in positive community impact. 

Feature Photo Courtesy of the London Health Sciences Centre.

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