Graphic image of Lorraine, Alen, Candice and Buffy

Illustrations By Michele Perry

How community members are giving back from a distance

Four GTA residents share the inspiring ways they’re showing their local love in challenging times

Day after day, we admire the people whose jobs have placed them on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. And rightly so. But there are folks across the GTA who are figuring out how to be of service in other, creative ways, too. They’re making thoughtfuluseful contributions and showing their love to their communities while wcollectively figure out what the “new normal” means.   

 These four GTA residents have tapped into their areas of expertise—running a small business, gardening, sewing and microvolunteeringand channelled their knowledge into helping out their neighbours, friends and even complete strangers. Their work shows that any offering of kindness can make a huge difference in many lives. And, in some cases, it can lead to a groundswell of interest and support that will, hopefully, endure once we emerge from this pandemic. 

Lorraine holding cat in her lap and facing camera

Lorraine Johnson: Starting Grow Food Toronto, a Facebook group for sharing urban agriculture tips and info 

“I’m really hoping that anyone who has resources and privilege will help get food to people who are at risk or marginalized.” 

 In late March 2020, Lorraine Johnson, a cultivation activist and author of books about nativeplant gardening and urban agriculture, woke up in the wee hours of the morning and asked herself how she could be useful during this trying time. She hopped on the phone with her young niece in Australia for advice, and by 6 a.m. had launched the Grow Food Toronto Facebook group, a hub to share produce-growing advice and info.  

Demonstrating that the drive to give back is a common theme among her fellow gardeners, Johnson says, two women who are deeply involved with urban agriculture in Toronto came on board as co-administratorsRhonda Teitel-Payne of Toronto Urban Growers and Cheyenne Sundance of Sundance Harvest. With their participation, the group was ready to take flight. 

 “The goal is to provide a resource for all of those people who are just starting [to garden] in response to the pandemic,” explains Johnson. During the first few weeks, Grow Food Toronto—which had more than 1,600 members by late Aprilwas a place to share plants, seeds and growing information. As cool-weather crops, and later heat lovers, like tomatoes, peppers and eggplantsbecome ready to harvest by home gardeners, the group will evolve to provide resources to ensure that produce donations go to organizations that will distribute them to people in need.   

 With so many people taking up gardening right now—and those that have been doing it all along—I’m really hopeful that more people see that gardening can be a positive force of change in the world,” says Johnson.

Photograph courtesy of Lorraine Johnson (above) / Photography by Phil Wallis (main)

Alen and Sanja seated infront of graphic image of flower

Alen ZukanovićSharing knowledge with other small businesses

 Knowing how difficult it is to run a small business and how precarious our situations are with rent, we reached out to our neighbours to see if we could help in any way.” 

 Alen Zukanović and his “partner in life and business,” Sanja Topić Zukanović, are still technically in the honeymoon phase of Somun Superstartheir new Kingston Road bakery and sandwich shop in the Beaches. Barely past the six-month mark once the pandemic hitand suddenly with no walk-in traffic, the makers of wood-fired Bosnian somun bread had to quickly evolve their business by taking it all online 

 When you consider how much work, innovation and adapting we had to do just to stay open, it felt like starting a new business, says ZukanovićThe pair worked diligently to create an online store so patrons could order menu items for pickupor delivery within a specified area. They also started a new service called Somun Provisions, which bundles bread and a selection of spreads. They even included the option of adding a plant from their neighbour’s store, Andy’s Flower Centre, to an order. Zukanović says it took him a few days to figure out the technology. 

 With his newfound knowledge, Zukanović reached out to a few businesses on Kingston Road that he knew didn’t have online stores. He wanted to help his neighbours and fellow small business owners figure out ways to weather this financial storm. I said, ‘These are the tools. Let me help you if you’re thinking of selling online, he says. “We learned from building this, and we can share it easily.  

Photography by Caroline Aksich

Candice looking at camera

Candice LevineSewing masks and donating the proceeds to Food Banks Canada 

“I decided to make masks for my customers at no cost, asking instead that they donate directly to Food Banks Canada, as the need is greater than ever.” 

 In the early part of the year, Candice Levine, owner and founder of The Candi Factoryis usually coming off a busy run at the One of a Kind Show Toronto, where she sells her quirky underpants and apparel. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I was overwhelmed and not really able to wrap my head around it,” says Levine, who is home with her two school-aged sons. “But then I was thinking about what I can do to be productive.” Levine drafted a pattern for a mask and put her sewing machine to work. “It’s a tiny thing, but I feel like it’s what I know how to do.” 

 Levine will mail the masks for free to anyone who orders, in exchange for a donation to Food Banks Canada. (However, she will still send one out if you can’t afford to donate.) “I picked Food Banks Canada because it’s national and there are people who see my [social media] posts who don’t live in Toronto,” she says. “More people are in need of food now, and food banks are in dire need of money, food and supplies.” To date she’s made more than 150 masks—and she’s still sewing! 

Photograph courtesy of Candice Levine

Image of Buffy surrounded by feathers

Buffy ChilderhoseMaking grocery store runs and developing a microvolunteering app 

“We have an opportunity right now to remind people that we all have gifts, and now is the time to share them.” 

 When Buffy Childerhose’s friend took off and left her car at her disposal, the writer and director figured she could make good use of the vehicle. She started asking her extended network—including those who are immunocompromised like herself—if they needed her to tack on a few extra items for them during her grocery store runsNow she tries to make sure she has at least four orders before heading out to the store to make the outing worthwhile.  

 These simple errand-running offers then led Childerhose to a brainwave: There should be an app for that. She has started working with friends to map out the user experience for an app that will help connect people to microvolunteering opportunities, like her grocery store runs. Through it, people with the resources and time to help out with small asks will be able to do so in the course of their regular day-to-day activities. “People really want to help, she explains. “We just have to make it as easy as possible. We also need to manage the logistics in a way that doesn’t destroy [other] organizations trying to deliver help.”  

Photograph courtesy of Buffy Childerhose

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