East Wellington Community Services volunteers are front line of agency

ROCKWOOD – East Wellington Community Services (EWCS) will be celebrating its 40th anniversary this June. 

“What we’ve been doing right from the beginning, is trying to strengthen our community through support services and advocacy,” said Barb Carscadden, manager of volunteer engagement and transportation services at EWCS for almost 11 years.

“Our volunteers are the front line of the agency. We couldn’t do what we do withouth them,” Carscadden said.

EWCS covers Erin and Guelph-Eramosa (which includes Rockwood and Eden Mills). 

“It’s kind of isolating to be living here if you don’t have easy access to services that might be in the bigger towns. We try to make sure that we have the services here for people so they don’t have to go far to access,” she added.

“We’re a multi-service agency. We offer two food banks and we have a transportation service for people who cannot drive.” 

Most rides are related to medical appointments, but daily living necessities are also considered, like banking and visiting workers at other agencies. Many agencies confine rides to their jurisdiction, Carscadden said, but EWCS often goes well outside Erin and Guelph/Eramosa.

Located in Erin, EWCS has a bus that picks clients up from all over their area. Volunteers ride with them to ensure their needs are met.

EWCS also offers an adult day program. “It’s [for] people who are either elderly and quite frail, or they might have Alzheimer’s,” Carscadden explained. 

And it began offering a youth program during the pandemic at its youth centre in Erin. “We offer classes, like cooking and art,” Carscadden said. “But it’s also a drop-in. So, kids can come in, when they just want to hang out. We also offer more in-depth things, like counselling services.”

The free clinical services are by appointment, and the drop-in is open Monday to Friday from 3 to 6pm. 

Holistic approach 

EWCS takes a holistic approach when working with clients. “We offer outreach services. For instance, if a client comes in asking for the food bank, we look a little deeper into why are they asking for food? What’s going on in their lives? Is there something we can help them with? We can make referrals to other agencies, or help them with paperwork,” Carscadden noted.

Stephanie Conway has been EWCS’s food bank and retail manager for almost ten years. “We deal with food insecurity. But we look at the bigger picture,” she said. “What makes us different from a lot of other agencies is offering that extended support, giving them outreach – the wraparound supports like housing. 

“We have an intake process, because we are making sure we are supporting those folks who are in need. So, there is a bit of a process with that. But we certainly aren’t refusing supports to anybody. I work quite closely with Julia Martin, who is our outreach worker. We can offer rental subsidies, help people with ODSP (Ontario Disabilities), mental health support, all those kinds of things.”

She continued, “We don’t want them to be coming and seeing us all the time. We want to offer solutions so that this can be short time support. That’s what we’re all about, helping them with all the needs in their life.”

Clients who choose to pick up their food hampers rather than have them delivered have private appointments. “We protect our clients privacy. It’s the hardest thing to reach out for help,” Conway said.

Dignity and privacy

Todd Salter has been in the community for over 34 years. A city and rural planner for over three decades, Salter retired just before the pandemic, and his dreams of travelling and volunteering were put on hold. But for almost two years now he has volunteered at the Rockwood food bank.

“When I was researching this organization to see if I wanted to volunteer for it, I noticed that continuity of support – helping people on a weekly basis with what they need, but also helping them navigate the system because it’s so complicated,” he said.

 “Food insecurity is something that has always been critical, but it’s become a crisis,” he said. “I wanted to do something different from what I did for a living. The food bank is a great way to contribute to the local community and help people that really need help.”

Clients receive customized food hampers after discussions with Salter and Conway about what they most need. “Like ordering from a grocery store,” Conway said. Slater added that they try to ensure a balance of the different food groups are in each hamper.

He and Conway have created a special section at the Rockwood food bank for unusual items, things that people don’t often request in their hampers. Salter said that people can help themselves to the unique items in a private space, because dignity is an important piece at EWCS. 

Salter said, “The cupboards start to get really bare by the middle of the year and it starts to get concerning. I know people get fatigued, and it’s great to have the big drives at Christmas, but we need continuous giving.” 

Their current list of most-needed items consists of instant coffee, juices, kids snacks, cooking oil, sugar, laundry soap, crackers, cookies and jams.

Conway said, “We’re a not-for-profit and don’t have a huge staff that we can access. Volunteers like Todd are priceless. We’d be lost without them.”

“Our volunteers come from so many different backgrounds,” Carscadden added. “We’d never get to work with someone like Todd if he wasn’t volunteering.” Different perspectives have been beneficial in operations at EWCS. 

“I spend a fair bit of time thinking about the connection between the big scale stuff that I used to do, like planning the future of cities and communities, neighborhoods and rural areas, and connecting it to social services and what people need,” Salter said.

“I’ve gotten to know people to the point where they feel comfortable talking to me, and I feel comfortable talking to them. And I can ask them. What do you need this month? If you need a big bag of rice or if you like cooking from scratch, let me know. Because I can tailor it. People donate really interesting things, and I want to connect it to people that would make use of it.”

Giving back

Salter said his role at the Rockwood food bank makes him feel like he’s really contributing to the community. “I’ve lived here for 35 years. It’s treated me well, and I want to give back. It makes me feel very positive, fulfilled. It feels meaningful.”

To anyone thinking of volunteering, Salter suggests considering that it’s not a permanent life-long commitment. “If you try something and you think okay, something else might feel a little more fulfilling, there’s no harm in moving over to something within the same organization. This organization offers all sorts of different services with the adult day program, driving, and the youth – you find the fit.”

Salter added that his role makes him “feel more grateful than ever for all the things in my life that I should be grateful for.” He donates not only his time, but makes a monetary donation monthly to help EWCS fund their top priorities.

Recognizing volunteers

This past year, over 120 volunteers were involved in all areas of the agency, including its New to You stores in Erin and Rockwood, its bookstore in Rockwood and income tax clinics. Carscadden believes the organization could not run without their volunteers. Currently there are about 90 active volunteers and 18 paid staff at the agency.

“It is so important to recognize your volunteers, to communicate to them how important their role is to the community,” said Carscadden. “Most of them do it because they just want to give back to the community. maybe they’ve had an experience themselves, and they really can understand what someone’s going through. Or, maybe they’re retired and they want something to fill their time – something meaningful.”

Over the years, there has been a change in the face of volunteerism at the agency. “When I first started, they were almost all retired individuals, primarily women. But now we’re getting a real mix. We have a lot of men who volunteer, we also have –  and this is the newest trend – people who work. They could be working full time, and they still help out.” 

 “Last year, we had 25 new volunteers sign up. And of those 25, 17 were employed in full time jobs,” Carscadden said. 

One of them, Stephanie Neal, grew up in Erin where both her parents volunteered. Her mother was a school and Meals on Wheels volunteer, and her father was part of the Erin Optimists Club. Despite working full time as operations manager for an importing company, she volunteers as an EWCS adult day program bus monitor.

“It’s truly a heartwarming experience for me to spend time with the incredible men and women who are part of the adult day program. It fills my cup,” she said.

“It’s the most rewarding and fulfilling experience. The team that runs the program are so kind and compassionate. I’m so thankful to be part of it.” 

Carscadden hopes the volunteers at EWCS know how important they are. “What we’re doing as an agency, we’re making a difference to people, and what they are doing each week can really affect someone,” she said. 

Lorie Black