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A different kind of grant celebration

By Chris Montanini,
The Londoner

A small celebration took place at Unity Project for Relief of Homelessness in London September 23 but the modest amount of grant money that brought the emergency shelter’s community together Friday has long been spent.

Instead, Unity Project employees, supporters, volunteers and clients briefly celebrated what has been a transformational couple of years following a $100,000 gift in the summer of 2014.

Officials said the money — $90,000 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and $10,000 from Sisters of St. Joseph — has elevated the Unity Project into a more outcome-driven operation with a new capacity to train aspiring social workers and better support clients they can now serve 24/7.

“Prior to the Trillium grant our volunteer co-ordinator worked just two days a week,” said Silvia Langer, the Unity Project’s development director. “That was all we had money for — 16 hours.”

The Unity Project’s volunteer co-ordinator, Loretta Hache, stopped splitting her time on the frontline and took on her current role full time once the grant was in the bank. Over the past two years, she’s developed partnerships with London’s educational institutions that allow aspiring social workers to gain hours of supervised, hands-on experience at the Unity Project as part of their studies.

The effort tripled the amount of Unity Project volunteers on site at any given time from an average of four to 12. Overall, 106 frontline volunteers have been placed at the Unity Project since April 2014 representing nearly 12,500 volunteer hours or $224,000 in salary equivalent, Langer said.

Besides the obvious benefits to the shelter’s full-time employees, most of the social work graduates who spent time at the Unity Project have since found full-time employment and five are now frontline support workers at the Unity Project itself. Fanshawe College student Terri King is one of them.

“I just started here as (a volunteer) to give back to my community,” King said at the event September 23. “Once I started, I knew this is where I wanted to be.”

King said she left an unfulfilling first career to pursue social work instead. Although her path was a little different — she went back to school after her experience at the Unity Project — she said learning the ropes with Hache’s supervision was an important learning experience.

“There were lots of surprises,” said King, who plans to earn a bachelor’s degree after graduating from Fanshawe next year. “We’re working with individuals who are marginalized. We’re working with individuals who have mental health issues. We’re working with individuals who may be experiencing drug-induced psychosis who may be struggling with addiction.

“Everybody has a story,” King continued. “We all have to learn to have patience to deal with people we might perceive as undesirable. We have to put those aside and remember that they’re human beings.”

The influx of eager volunteers has provided other benefits at the Unity Project too, Langer said. Staff has been able to focus more on fundraising and has already brought in enough money to fund half of the volunteer co-ordinator position for next year.

“It (the grant) has lifted the capacity of the organization across the board,” Langer said. “For the most part we have built the capacity to fund that program. From here, our plan is to look at real labour market partnerships.”

Grant requests will still be part of the Unity Project’s revenue, Langer added.

A new three-year strategic plan finished early this year was also unveiled publicly September 23. Langer said that project also benefited from increased capacity at the Unity Project over the past two years. The new strategic plan will refocus the Unity Project on outcome-driven results.

“Our values are still there, they are still what animates all that programming that gives us that character … but it puts outcomes for the people we serve at the highest priority,” Langer explained.

Program and service delivery, organizational development, advocacy, money and facility expansion are all in the Unity Project’s plans over the next three years. Langer clarified that those plans don’t include more beds.

“In the passive delivery of service, you end up contributing to homelessness,” she said.

Instead, Langer said the Unity Project will focus on triaging clients based on their needs and allocate resources as efficiently as possible.

“You save your resources to put where they’re most needed,” she said.

Source: The Londoner

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