An anniversary should be the time to celebrate, but with COVID-19 the life and the future of the non-profit organizations keeps being postponed. Abrigo Centre should be celebrating its 30th anniversary but with the suspension of fundraising, the institution is struggling to maintain the the operation of its programs and people it employs. Ed Graça, the Executive Director of Abrigo Centre, admitted this week to Milénio Stadium that “there is still hope” but the next year it will be difficult. The major programs are still operating online but the group activities have been suspended since the beginning of the pandemic. Abrigo Centres provides relief to people that are struggling, but now the institution is also struggling and needs your help.
Abrigo assists more than 6,500 clients each year, has more than five programs and employs 14 people. The help now comes by phone or e-mail, but the residents are anxious to come back to the programs and reconnect with staff, friends and in some cases, what they call family. Graça points out the high level of professionalism that the team has been showing in their new way of working and informed us that everyone is starting to get prepared to operate according the new rules.
Since the province of Ontario started to reopen the economy, non-profits are trying to prepare themselves to open under very different circumstances, and hopefully in September Abrigo Centre can open too. Abrigo translates as “a place where you can hold out until a storm ends” and during COVID-19 that meaning is more important than ever. Help them to help those who need help, you can make a big difference in someone’s life.
Milénio Stadium: The Abrigo Centre was funded in 1990. 30 years later, this institution is confronted with a pandemic. How is COVID-19 affecting the fundraising?
Ed Graça: Yes, this is our 30th anniversary and it is certainly not playing out like we expected 10 months ago when planning started. We had three major events in the works for this special year: our annual fundraising gala, a late spring community event and a 30th reunion for staff and Board members. Of course, all have been put on hold because of COVID-19. Last year the net revenue from our gala was $70,000 and used to support all of our programs. There is still hope that we can hold the gala before our fiscal year ends on March 31, 2021. Our fundraising has been impacted by the pandemic. Since March, we have not been able meet face-to-face with potential donors or give tours of our agency. As a result, we have pivoted to more online fundraising over the last three months. Our major programs are still operating virtually but all group activities, like our seniors group, women’s group and art therapy group have been suspended.
MS: Did Abrigo need to apply to Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance? Did employees need to apply to CERB or Employment Insurance?
EG: No, Abrigo has not applied as of yet for any government assistance. All employees on staff prior to the pandemic are still working with us, albeit remotely.
MS: In the last year, the Abrigo Centre had the financial backing of some individuals. Are you afraid that some of these individuals will cut their support of Abrigo Centre?
EG: Yes, losing fundraising revenue for the current fiscal year is a real concern. Whenever the economy is impacted negatively because of a recession or even something unusual like a pandemic, it traditionally hurts the fundraising ability of a not-for-profit agency. We are no different. Our hope is that the revenue decline is nominal and our community rallies around Abrigo to support the clients we are still assisting. They are the ones most hurt by the pandemic. Abrigo’s work has not been put on hold. We are helping people five days a week virtually by phone or email.
MS: Recently the federal government announced more money to the New Horizons Program. Would some of the seniors be struggling if they didn’t release more financial help?
EG: We were delighted to see that the New Horizons program has opened up a new grant application process and we will definitely be making a submission to support our seniors. Right now, from what we understand, our seniors are holding their own both financially and emotionally. Many of them received an additional government benefit from GST in April and this July will be receiving additional funds of $300 from Old Age Security (OAS) and another $200 if they are in receipt of the Guaranteed Income Supplement benefit (GIS). I know that most want to return to Abrigo to see their friends and experience our Life and Hope program again, but they are well aware that it is not possible at this time.
MS: How many programs do you have and how many people do you help annually with the type of work you provide?
EG: Abrigo has five main programs: Violence Against Women (VAW), Seniors, Youth, Community Development and Integration (newcomers and gov’t form filling) and our Partner Assault Response or PAR program (group counselling for men who have abused their spouse or partner). The core of Abrigo’s work every day is assisting our VAW clients. They are the reason Abrigo started and the reason we keep going year after year. Annually we see approximately 800 women who are dealing with experiences of violence and abuse in their home. Overall, Abrigo assists more than 6,500 clients each year. We currently have a staff of 14 and we traditionally have about 100 volunteers who provide over 17,000 hours of service annually.
MS: What are the guidelines to operate in the pandemic and how are people reacting to them?
EG: We closed our office doors in mid-March and quickly moved to virtual counselling over the phone for the vast majority of our clients. This was done to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of our staff members, clients and volunteers. I think the transition has gone very well. New clients are calling in and speaking to a counsellor that same day and our ongoing clients are having their regularly scheduled sessions. I am proud of the professionalism and extraordinary efforts of the Abrigo staff to deliver outstanding service to our clients. Positive outcomes are happening for clients daily. This model is closely duplicating the experience of in person meetings. Most of our clients have been accepting of this change and happy to conduct their sessions over the phone.
MS: Do you currently have any “in-person” programs?
EG: No, not at this time. All of our work is currently done by telephone or emails. Right now, we have a small team of employees preparing for Abrigo’s reopening. We are putting together a document outlining all the safety protocols staff and clients must follow and purchasing personal protective equipment or PPE for staff and volunteers. We have not determined an actual date at this point for reopening. When we do, it will be in a phased in approach, much like the province. First staff will return, then clients by appointment only, then walk-ins, finally our groups will return. That may take months. Many social service agencies in the city are targeting early September for a reopening and we will be ready by then as well.
MS: Abrigo Centre helps in Portuguese language. What is your message to the Portuguese community based in Toronto and how do you see the future?
EG: The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly left a deep impact on the Portuguese language community. For the first two months or more, the vast majority of calls we received were about financial insecurity. So many people lost their jobs. People didn’t know how they would pay their rent or buy food for their family. A number were out of status and could not apply for CERB. A number needed assistance with their CERB, E.I., and Ontario Works applications because of low English literacy levels. Our counsellors spent a lot of time assisting those individuals or referring them to other agencies better suited to help address their situation. Our counsellors have been on the frontlines from day one. Each day they are making a positive difference in the lives of local residents. My message to the community is please continue to support Abrigo. For 30 years people in our community have been saying, “If you need help, go to Abrigo”, and that has not changed because of the pandemic. We need everyone’s support to ensure our staff members and programs are running at full capacity. Please visit us at www.abrigo.ca for more information or to make a donation.