This September we had the chance to sit down and chat with Donna Wawzonek, Fund Development Coordinator at Sistering, about how Sistering is tackling COVID-19. With several new projects being piloted this year, Sistering is implementing creative solutions to overcome everyday challenges brought on by the pandemic. To find out how, check out our conversation below!
Can you introduce our readers to Sistering ?
Sistering has been serving our most vulnerable women and trans folk for about 40 years — we’re coming up to our 40th anniversary next year. It was founded in 1980 when a group of concerned citizens realized that women were being released from mental health facilities without any support in the community for them to transition back into regular life. They founded Sistering to provide that kind of support.
There’s been a number of changes over the years to the organization and how we operate. In 2015 there was a rather notorious sexual assault case that resulted because a woman didn’t have anywhere to go during the overnight period. There were no 24-hour drop-in centres available in Toronto and shelters lock down after a certain hour at night which meant that she had nowhere to go to be safe. That’s when Sistering transformed itself into a 24/7 drop-in centre.
Since then, we’ve been building up the different support systems that we provide for our participants, and now we serve thousands of women and trans folk in our community with any manner of support for practical and emotional needs. That includes the 24/7 drop-in centre — which changed recently because of COVID — case-support work, harm-reduction work, and providing kits as well as employment opportunities for those engaged with risky behaviours including drug use and sex work. We also have an on-site physician and psychiatrist, as well as opportunities and programs related to education, employment housing and food access. All of these programs are based on anti-oppression, anti-racism models, and they are trauma informed. We work on a low-barrier model, which means that we don’t provide a cookie-cutter approach and instead we meet people where they’re at. We work with their own personal goals rather than making assumptions as to where we think they should be and we work towards those goals independently.
We also saw that Sistering provides take-away meals because of COVID?
Yeah, exactly. When COVID hit, the 24/7 drop-in centre wasn’t able to function and still maintain COVID protocols, so the City of Toronto lent us a community centre where we created a respite site. We’re housing folks 24/7 and keeping them safe, occupied and supporting them in all those sorts of ways. This meant however, that a lot of the people we were already serving weren’t able to access our services, so we started a take-out meal program. We got incredible support from the community. MLSE and other organizations were providing in-kind donations of prepared meals and we were handing out hundreds of those every day and also delivering to those that were precariously housed.
Can you tell us about your team and all those involved with Sistering?
We have a staff of over 40 people, both full time and part time as well as relief staff because of the nature of the drop-in centre. We have staff working in harm reduction, which includes working with Peer Participants — folks that have lived experience exactly like our participants — and we pay them a living wage at $15 an hour. They put together harm reduction kits for those in sex work and drug use, and they also work in outreach. This means they go out in the community, distribute kits and collect information about harmful drugs, drug use and other bad dates and things going on in the community that we need to know.
We also have case support workers that work a caseload of anywhere between 10-20 families to make sure their needs are met. They help them connect with education, employment, housing lists — any nature of support that they need and anything they might need from our in-kind donations. And then we have the outreach program who go out to housed individuals and check in on their mental health, make sure they’re not feeling socially isolated and that they’re getting their meals and anything else that they might need to thrive.
In terms of the development team, we are very small but very busy and happy to be so. It’s myself and my colleague Kathryn Glancy. I am responsible for most of the development that happens in fundraising with Sistering, and then Kathryn’s focus is on in-kind donations and donor stewardships. Together, we’re working on a new program called Sistering Gardens where folks in the community are growing gardens and contributing their produce to our kitchen and our food access program, so that’s a lot of fun as well. Basically, between the two of us, we’re doing everything related to fundraising. That includes individual donors, grant applications, third-party events and peer-to-peer fundraising.
Can you tell us more about Sistering Gardens and other projects going on this year?
Sistering Gardens is a pilot this year and came about because of the new COVID protocols around community gardens. We have a community garden plot in the Christie Pits Community Garden, but had to restrict access to it due to social-distancing regulations. I noticed there were a lot of folks who were feeling socially isolated and looking for a way to give back to the community in a way that kept themselves safe and also provided self care and something to care for as well, so that’s how the Sistering Gardens program came about.
It’s relatively fledgling — we have about 60 gardeners right now contributing produce on a regular basis and that’s anywhere from someone who had a single kale plant in their window sill to others who are working in community gardens. It’s grown now to where we are actually working with farmers markets who are donating their leftover produce on a weekly basis. It’s been quite interesting to see that program develop.
There are other larger programs that we’re also working on right now that we’ve gotten funding for and are piloting this year. One is the Peer Leadership Program where we’d elevate the leadership skills of our Peer Participants so they can become leaders in their own communities. Once the program is built out and tested, we’ll expand it so that Peer Participants can support Sistering in the other departments. Right now, most of the Peers are either working in the kitchen or in harm reduction. We’d like to see them in every department, including development, because some of their personalities are perfectly suited to fundraising and we’d love to mentor them and eventually have them become permanent staff at Sistering.
There is another project that has two components to it and we’re referring to it as Psychological PPE. When COVID first hit we were seeing a spike in psychotic episodes and distress within our participants. Not just those we were housing at the respite centre but also those who were housed or homeless and couldn’t have access to their regular social circles. We’ve created two prongs of that program: one is having an in-house health counsellor and a mental health counsellor check in with participants that are regularly engaging with us in our centre to assess their psychological and mental health. The second is having an individual who’s going through the outreach program and checking on people who are housed to make sure they’re doing okay and that they’re provided with the support they need.
What are some ways people can help Sistering during COVID-19?
We’re always welcoming financial support in any size — that’s what helps us keep our doors open and keeps our participants fed. We also love working with people who have networks that would like to activate fundraising campaigns of their own. We have a really robust kit that we can provide folks who want to fundraise within their own communities, so I’d encourage people to get in touch with me about that.
In terms of volunteering, there’s the Sistering Gardening program which is winding down for the season, but there’s other opportunities for volunteering as well. Right now, we’re finding we have some gaps in the organization around marketing and design, so if someone wanted to supply pro-bono support we’d always welcome that. We’re also looking for support with our gratitude campaigns for our donors and our supporters. Any folks who want to hand-write notes or thank-you cards for us, we will happily provide them with what they need to do that.
Our biggest fundraiser every year is called The Coldest Night of the Year. Traditionally, on what is supposed to be the coldest night of the year in February, we get folks together to walk and raise awareness about what it’s like to be homeless during this night in Canada. Participants can choose whether they just want to walk, just want to fundraise, or they can participate in both. The fundraiser is managed by Blue Sea Philanthropy, who are looking at rejigging the program next year so that it’s both virtual and in-person depending on what each provinces’ guidelines are when February comes around. We are going to be participating in that, so we’ll be looking for people who are interested in walking virtually or in person with us in the Sistering neighbourhood.
Lastly, if any of those things don’t fit with what you’re interested in or if you’re still eager to support Sistering, please reach out to me. I’d love to have a personal conversation and see if we can build something unique together.