Look for the helpers: Ottawans finding new ways to lend a hand during pandemic

As public health officials preach social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, people in Ottawa are finding new ways to look out for their neighbours.

Neighbourhood networks, grassroots groups seeing to needs of city's most vulnerable

Abbis Mahmoud is the owner of Dreammind Group, a collection of Ottawa restaurants. He's bought $45,000 in mostly non-perishable food from his suppliers and is donating it to seniors and other vulnerable people affected by COVID-19 social distancing measures. (Andrew Craig)

As public health officials preach social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, people in Ottawa are finding new ways to perform acts of kindness both great and small.

Rachel Eugster, who runs a community email group in Hintonburg, has collected a list of neighbours ready to help more vulnerable residents.

"People are offering to walk each other's dogs, to pick up people's prescriptions, to go shopping for people, to make a cheering phone call," Eugster told CBC News.

One neighbour offered to stop outside someone's house with her baby to smile and wave.​​​​- Rachel Eugster

"One neighbour offered to stop outside someone's house with her baby to smile and wave."

Eugster said she's heartened by the response from people who are willing to help despite the strain on their own livelihoods caused by the pandemic. She said the group is working to monitor the needs of seniors who may not be online.


Another online group called Caremongering Ottawa has accumulated more than 3,000 members since Friday. Maria-Hélèna Pacelli, one of the group's moderators, said so far there have been a lot more offers of help than requests, but the requests are coming in.

Pacelli said one mother was able to get baby food after posting a request, while others have been able to obtain other essentials.

'I had to do something'

Abbis Mahmoud, owner of the Dreammind Group of restaurants and bars, has been using his business contacts to collect food to distribute to seniors and other vulnerable residents, even as he shuts down his own business in compliance with Ontario's state of emergency.

"People need to stop worrying about their bills and just worry about community and helping others," said Mahmoud, who has so far donated $45,000 worth of mostly non-perishable food, and has received matching donations.  

"I felt I had to do something, so I got up and I ordered a bunch of food that we paid for and it spiralled out of control."

Mahmoud said he stopped taking donations around noon Wednesday so he and other volunteers could start making deliveries. He said volunteers call ahead and leave food at the door to minimize contact or risk of transmission.

Established groups need support, too

The United Way is helping community agencies, food banks and other groups continue operating as coronavirus mitigation measures strain their operations.

Michael Allen, president and CEO of the United Way in eastern Ontario, said groups like Meals on Wheels — which operates out of the same building as Good Companions — are looking for volunteers to keep their programs running.

"The average age of the volunteers that are providing that support is 70 years old. They want to do everything in their power to replace those volunteers or build some depth into that volunteer service," Allen said.


The Distress Centre of Ottawa is experiencing an increase in calls for mental health counselling services, but it may have to decentralize its call centre, Allen said.

He said the informal neighbourhood groups that are popping up are "invaluable," but it's important for people to remember the established community organizations that serve these needs year-round.

"This is not the same kind of challenge that is presented by filling sandbags or cleaning up after a natural disaster. This is a much different challenge for us," Allen said.


While neither the city nor Ottawa Public Health are currently calling for volunteers, Allen said the United Way is working with Volunteer Ottawa to identify potential volunteers and connect them with the groups that need them most.

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