Toronto Down syndrome group pivots to virtual events as donations drop due to pandemic

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Down Syndrome Association of Toronto has completely re-imagined its programming - and its fundraising techniques.

Down Syndrome Association of Toronto still providing support and fun to members online

Ryan Hasan has been participating in online programming run by the Down Syndrome Association of Toronto -- including an online version of their annual fundraising walk. (Submitted by DSAT )

In a normal year, the Down Syndrome Association of Toronto's Buddy Walk would draw hundreds of people. 

But this year, with the COVID-19 pandemic upending the way non-profits raise funds around the country, the association has moved its annual walk online. 

"We have a 60-per-cent funding gap from what we've been able to raise in previous years," said Nisha Hasan, a board member with the Down Syndrome Association of Toronto (DSAT).

Now, to fill the gap, they're putting a call out for donations — and completely reimagining their programming for people with Down syndrome, which has in the past included dances, sports events, and cooking classes.

Take the adult dinner and social program, something Nisha's brother, Ryan Hasan, has been looking forward to joining for years.

The Buddy Walk normally attracts hundreds of people and brings in thousands of dollars, says DSAT vice president David Otanez. (Submitted by DSAT)

By the time he turned 19 this year — old enough to finally get in on the fun — the program was no longer possible. 

"Unfortunately, with restaurant closures, and not being able to connect in person, we've had to put that on hold," said Nisha Hasan. 

"But we decided, there has to be another way to keep that connection going." 

Now, Ryan's counting down to Sunday nights, when an online bingo night is held for people who would have been part of the adult dinner program. 

It's one of 22 programs run by DSAT that have migrated online during the pandemic. Ryan also attends a bi-weekly virtual dance that has replaced in-person parties. 

The association has pivoted to online events, like this virtual bingo. It's held for participants who are 19 and over to replace a dinner program that ran before the pandemic. (Submitted by DSAT )

The transition has not been without challenges — both for participants like Ryan and for the organization. 

"We're so fortunate to be able to have the virtual side of it," said Nisha Hasan.

But, she says, it's been a "learning curve" for her brother to get used to online socializing, and loneliness in the long stretches between events. 

Or, as Ryan puts it: "I'm just bored, and do nothing." 

Fundraising has been another major challenge for DSAT, which relies on donations, sponsors and grants to pay for its programming. 

A recent survey from the Ontario Non-profit Network revealed that one in five non-profits say they could be closed by the new year as traditional sources of funding dry up amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

DSAT vice president David Otanez says his association isn't in a "threatened" position, but it has had to rethink how it offers programming in every way. 

"[In the past] we'd raise thousands of dollars in one day," Otanez said. "When that's no longer available or viable it's going to impact you."

Earlier this month, the province announced $83 million in grants through the Ontario Trillium Foundation to support eligible non-profits, something Otanez says they will "absolutely" look into. 

He's also hoping that this year's virtual Buddy Walk can help raise at least a good portion of the money it's made in previous years. 

With files from Talia Ricci