Meet the 9-year-old girl whose simple act of kindness during COVID-19 spurred an army of volunteers

More than a year into the pandemic, Hana Fatima's small gesture to help a woman with her groceries has become the Good Neighbour Project, a delivery network of some 6,000 volunteers from a host of diverse backgrounds, speaking more than 30 languages, with chapters in Toronto, London and Ottawa.

Hana Fatima's small pandemic gesture snowballed into volunteer delivery network the Good Neighbour Project

A simple act of kindness by nine-year-old Hana Fatima at an Ontario grocery store last year has since snowballed into a major volunteer project to get supplies to the most vulnerable. (Chris Glover/CBC)

At just nine years old, Hana Fatima doesn't quite know what she wants to be when she grows up, but she does know she wants to help people realize the power they have to make a difference.

"When I go, somebody has to know it and carry it down to the next generations. I want to be somebody who teaches others about the good," she told CBC News.

It's a lesson born out of an impulse she had while shopping with her father at a Mississauga, Ont., grocery store in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

About a year ago — two days before Ontario's first lockdown, when toilet paper and uncertainty about life in a global pandemic were top of mind for so many — Fatima and her father, Tariq Syed, were stocking up on supplies. They waited an hour in line, and once inside, their goal was to buy what they needed fast and get home safely.

"I was panic shopping, to be honest," recalled Syed, 38. "Naturally, I was focused on me and trying to get my list as quickly as possible." He remembers people having some difficulty, but it wasn't something he was paying attention to.

That is, until Fatima noticed an elderly woman in the check-out line struggling with her groceries.

'It made me think of my grandparents'

"It made me think of my grandparents," Fatima recalled. So, she pointed the woman out to her father and the two offered to help carry her purchases to her car.

It was a simple gesture, but the woman's reaction stayed with Fatima. "She got really happy."

Back at home, Fatima and her father shared their number with a few elderly neighbours. The idea was that those who needed help could provide them with a list of items that Fatima and her dad would purchase so those most at risk didn't have to be exposed to the virus in crowded stores.

WATCH | How the Good Neighbour Project grew to more than 6,700 volunteers:

This father, daughter duo started a project to help seniors in their neighbourhood during the pandemic

1 year ago
Duration 2:34
Hana Fatima, 9, and her dad started The Good Neighbour Project at the beginning of the pandemic to help seniors in their Mississauga neighbourhood. Now, the group has more than 6,700 volunteers helping seniors in the GTA, Ottawa and London. Chris Glover has their story.

Syed shared the idea with a few friends and started a Facebook group to co-ordinate. His friends told their friends, and within hours there were hundreds of people volunteering to do the same thing in their communities.

Fatima's gesture in the store snowballed into an army of volunteers that Syed and the other core members decided to call the Good Neighbour Project.

More than a year into the pandemic, the group now boasts some 6,000 volunteers from a host of diverse backgrounds, speaking more than 30 languages, with chapters in Toronto, London and Ottawa.

Those who need assistance accessing groceries, essential supplies and medication are connected via the Good Neighbour Hotline with a person who is able to purchase and deliver the items. The person making the request pays only for the cost of the groceries as delivery is free. 

'People have that wanting in their heart'

Since launching last March, the group says it has completed more than 9,000 deliveries for vulnerable people including seniors, people with special needs, people who are pregnant, single parents and others. But according to Syed, the group isn't a charity or a non-profit. 

"It's just a network of good-hearted Canadians who came together to help the community during unprecedented times," he said. 

"It shows that people have that wanting in their heart to go and do something," Fatima said of the outpouring of volunteers. 

Ahmad El Rifai, 73, is just one of the seniors Fatima has helped. With two stents in his heart, he knew going to the store because he'd run out of something like sugar or coffee wasn't a good idea. 

When Fatima and her father offered to help deliver groceries to their 73-year-old neighbour, Ahmad El Rifai, he was touched by their kindness. (CBC)

"It's not a joke," he told CBC News. So when Fatima and her father offered up their number, he was touched by their kindness.

"They are wonderful. This young lady, she is a blessing in our neighbourhood," he said. "We always appreciate what she does."

A bright spot

At a time when case counts are surging and the threat of variants is forcing people back into lockdown and isolation, Syed says the project has been a bright spot.

"One good thing that came out of COVID ... is basically this project, looking at people coming out and helping each other and being there for each other — it's unexpected."

Fatima wants to share that lesson with as many people as she can.

"When I saw the elderly person, I thought that was my opportunity to go and help somebody," she said. "Because whenever you get a chance to be helpful and kind, just go it and do without thinking about it. Everybody should do that.

"You see an opportunity? Somebody needs help? Just go and do it."

With files from Chris Glover