‘We’re in the business of human connection’: How Warden Woods’ all-in-one telephone support line is helping Scarborough residents during the pandemic

From left, Scarborough Support Line (SSL) staff and volunteers Hermine Milieu, Raquel Santos, Dorcil Alexander and Rabiah Khan.

During a four-and-a-half-hour shift at Warden Woods Community Centre (WWCC), staff and volunteers field dozens of calls from Scarborough residents.

Some call seeking grocery delivery services, income assistance programs, counselling or homework help for their children. Others, living alone during the pandemic and experiencing feelings of isolation, simply want to talk.

“We’re in the business of human connection,” says Lou Sevilla, volunteer and coordinator of WWCC’s Scarborough Support Line (SSL). “We want to educate and empower people. Sometimes that means connecting them to services in the community. Other times it means simply lending an ear.”

Warden Woods launched the SSL in March at the onset of the pandemic. With many of the community centre’s in-person programs and services closed at the time, the line served as a way for WWCC to continue addressing the immediate, primary and emotional needs of its clients and community members.

Since then, the SSL has responded to more than a thousand calls from residents of the southwest Scarborough area.

The “all-in-one” telephone support line is run by a team of staff and volunteers with support from the United Way Greater Toronto’s COVID-19 response funds.

They listen with compassion and connect callers with resources at WWCC and in the wider community that address issues such as food insecurity, loneliness, income insecurity and mental health concerns.

These resources include the services available at the Oakridge Health and Harm Reduction Hub at WWCC, a site launched and operated by East Toronto Health Partners (ETHP), the Ontario Health Team (OHT) that serves East Toronto.

There, clients have been connected with services such as counselling, case management and peer support.

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Staff and volunteers have also referred clients to WWCC’s recently launched Adaptive Movement for Seniors program, which aims to connect seniors who may be feeling isolated at home through virtual activities on Zoom.

“We’re helping to break down some of the social and cultural barriers in the community by having these individuals meet and spend time together virtually during the pandemic,” says Lou.

Recognizing that many residents of southwest Scarborough come from different countries, the SSL team is also dedicated to recognizing what Lou calls the “hyphenated-Canadian experience.”

This involves “embracing everyone that calls in,” being sensitive to cultural and racialized experiences and following anti-oppressive practices.

“Many of our clients don’t speak English as a first language and one of the first things they’ll say when they call in is ‘Sorry, my English is bad,’” Lou adds. “We want them to know they don’t have to apologize for being who they are and for their experiences. The SSL is here to support them and to embrace the differences that make our community unique.”

Lou says the SSL team speaks French, Tagalog, Bengali and Portuguese. They make it a point to follow up with every caller by email to confirm service referrals in writing and to let them know that WWCC is here to support them.

“I know it’s a cliché but this is my way to pay it forward,” Lou says. “I’m passionate about using my position of privilege to help others.”