In early April, Reverend Nathaniel Chae was looking for a way to get his mother vaccinated against COVID-19 when he heard a knock on his door.
As he recalls it, he was met with a friendly person named Rajasree who was “eager to make a difference.”
He says Rajasree was wearing a mask, maintained physical distance and explained she was from TNO — The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO), a community agency that’s part of East Toronto Health Partners (ETHP) and serves Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park, where Nathaniel lives.
Rajasree asked Nathaniel if she could help book a vaccine appointment for anyone in his family who was eligible to receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the time.
“My mother is elderly and has asthma and I was actually looking into a way to book an appointment so this was very convenient,” Nathaniel says. “As my mother was not home, I could only give the information that I knew at hand. But Rajasree was willing to try and make things work so that I could book an appointment for my mother to get vaccinated.”
Thanks to Rajasree’s outreach, Nathaniel’s mother was able to receive her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a local clinic.
Later, when Nathaniel became eligible to receive the vaccine due to his work as a faith leader who conducts home visits with people who are sick, he was also able to book an appointment through these community efforts.
“As a resident of a COVID-19 ‘hot spot,’ these services are extremely appreciated, especially because of Rajasree’s friendly nature, passion to help and willingness to go beyond the call,” Nathaniel says.
For Rajasree Datta, it was all in a day’s work. The Thorncliffe Park resident has been a community ambassador with TNO since January 2021.
She’s part of a team of more than 70 individuals across East Toronto — many of them volunteers — who work together across various agencies to connect local residents with services, programs and supports that help improve the health of a community. These agencies include Access Alliance, Afghan Women’s Organization (AWO), Bangladeshi-Canadian Community Services (BCS), Flemingdon Health Centre (FHC), The Neighbourhood Group (TNG), TNO — The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO), Toronto Community Housing, WoodGreen Community Services and Working Women Community Centre (WWCC).
“I’ve worked as a peer leader and I’m an active volunteer in various capacities throughout the neighbourhood,” Rajasree says. “So when this opportunity came up, I felt it would be a great way to help others and ensure we’re living a safe and healthy life together, especially during the pandemic when everyone has been homebound and it has been really difficult.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, community ambassadors like Rajasree have knocked on doors, set up information booths in natural gathering places like parks and plazas, conducted virtual information sessions and connected with residents by phone and email to share important information about COVID-19 and how individuals can keep themselves and their loved ones safe.
This includes posting and handing out flyers in building lobbies, communal laundry rooms and other spaces — “wherever we can reach people,” Rajasree says — to share information about pop-up testing sites and vaccine clinics. They’ve also distributed adult- and child-sized masks to residents in need.
Over the past few months, as vaccine supply has become more readily available across Ontario, they’ve listened to concerns that local residents have about the COVID-19 vaccine and answered questions to help increase vaccine confidence and uptake.
In addition, they’ve helped book vaccine appointments for hundreds of local residents.
Because many community ambassadors live in the neighbourhoods they serve and share the same cultures, languages and traditions as local residents, they’re also able to connect with people in a way that traditional public health channels may be unable to.
“We have some residents who aren’t comfortable speaking English,” says Rajasree, who is fluent in Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and English. “When I’m able to, I start speaking with them in their language and you can see they get a little more relaxed, a little friendlier. It becomes easier to communicate and to understand their questions and concerns.”
Farjana Yesmin and Shahed Siddique, community ambassadors with ETHP members WoodGreen and Access Alliance, respectively, also frequently make use of their mother tongues to connect with residents in Crescent Town.
In their vaccine outreach during the pandemic, they’ve discovered a number of barriers that are preventing local residents from being vaccinated.
Some people find it difficult to book an appointment using the online provincial system or don’t want to wait in line at a pop-up clinic, they say. Other people have concerns about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, potential side effects and mixing vaccine brands.
Some residents are refugees or undocumented migrants and are hesitant about attending clinics because they fear the collection of their personal information may lead to deportation.
Many of these people are not against vaccinations but are simply “on the fence” about choosing to be vaccinated, Shahed says, making it even more important that there is someone they are able to talk to.
“We listen to what they are feeling and share with them the facts and data to help correct any myths or misinformation about the vaccines they have heard,” he says. “We’ve been able to convince a number of people to be vaccinated using this strategy. We want to build that trust.”
Farjana notes that individuals have different concerns about and motivations for getting vaccinated, so it’s important to explore a number of outreach strategies.
For example, some people respond well to incentives, like receiving a free grocery gift card for getting their first dose. Other people need to be reassured the vaccine will have no negative effect on their health.
“We work onsite at the pop-up clinics to help clarify any questions or confusion about the vaccine,” Farjana says. “We’ll also go to nearby businesses and buildings to let people know there is a clinic happening close to them. Sometimes, just letting them know it’s steps away helps. There is that convenience factor.”
Conducting outreach is not always easy work, but Rajasree, Shahed and Farjana say they’re happy to do it.
Their efforts have helped significantly decrease COVID-19 cases in the neighbourhoods they live — and they haven’t gone unnoticed by their neighbours, with some expressing thanks through handwritten notes and emails and in person.
“When we’re able to help someone get vaccinated, the gratitude we see on their face is priceless,” Farjana says.
Nathaniel is one of those folks who’s been able to give thanks. “I hope that these kinds of services continue to be supported in our communities and neighbourhoods,” he says.
ETHP is operating pop-up vaccine clinics throughout East Toronto that are open to everyone born in 2009 or earlier who lives, works or attends school in any “M” postal code. First and second doses are available. Appointments may be booked in advance at some clinics. To learn more, visit tehn.ca/vaccinepopups.