As the pandemic unfolded last March, Jane Laker found herself discharged from hospital just moments after her hip replacement surgery. She lives alone in Barrie, Ont., and didn’t have any support. Later that evening, she realized her inhaler was empty. Stuck in bed, she picked her phone and asked for help in a new Facebook group called Barrie Families Unite (BFU).
The mandate of the group, which now has more than 12,000 members, is to provide support for people with essentials during the pandemic.
“BFU had just started not long before that,” Laker said. I’m laying in bed and I’m just getting more anxious as the moments pass and finally, I thought, ‘Jane, just put it out there.’”
“They had an inhaler to me within an hour that night.”
Laker remembered her positive experience with the group one cold night in late January, when she and all the other residents of her building were evacuated because of a fire. She began doing the groundwork to help 40 people find a place to sleep.
With the help of Barrie Families Unite, she was able to find housing for people after their initial three-day emergency housing ran out. They connected with the right resources to start a Meals on Wheels program for people who were severely diabetic or had dietary restrictions. Laker is now actively involved in the group as one of its moderators.
Watch: The Barrie Families Unite experience
Video by Arsheen Shamaila
Nikki Glahn, a full-time mother of two, founded the Facebook group within a few days after the first lockdown was announced in Ontario last year. Group members collaborate to provide people with the help they’re requesting, whether it’s setting up a birthday for an eight-year-old or buying a bed for a 76-year-old grandmother who’s been sleeping on a couch for two years.
‘Look for the helpers’
“In times of crisis, my mom always told me, ‘Look for the helpers,’” said Glahn.
People are able to ask for help by simply commenting or reaching out privately. Glahn and her team often make anonymous posts and support floods the page within minutes.
Jay, who prefers to share his first name only to avoid stigma, is one of those members. Originally from Owen Sound, he found himself homeless during the pandemic for reasons he didn’t feel comfortable disclosing. Jay reached out to BFU for housing assistance after learning about it from his brother.
“Within three months, they were able to get me a place in Barrie, able to get me on my feet, get me three months’ supply of food for my dog, which isn’t cheap, and ensured I had food every week of the month,” he said.
At first, BFU connected Jay with an agency called Empower Simcoe to help him with housing. Glahn believes in educating people about existing community resources rather than creating news ones altogether. The group steps in to fill the gaps.
“I think there is a need for this kind of group, period. Whether we’re in the middle of a pandemic, or not,” Glahn said.
BFU now in a proactive position
From grocery deliveries to winter gear for families, she and her team of volunteers have it covered. Glahn explained that the team is finally able in a proactive position rather than a reactive one. They have emergency kits with basic essentials ready for whenever someone needs them.
“I hope that we go forward remembering that we do live in a community and that if we are all healthy, strong, well and cared for, we are a better community,” she said.
Although a lot of the aid happens immediately across members, the Beat the Heat campaign, Back to School Mask campaign and free winter pop-up shops are just some of the events the BFU has organized in the last year.
This grassroots initiative that once started out of ambiguity and fear of the pandemic, showcases the beauty of humanity is a way that is often overlooked. From inhalers to birthday cakes, residents of Barrie are more connected than ever. Some even describe it as a small town again.
“I have the privilege of sitting in a position to witness the best of humanity every single day,” Glahn said.
After the fire in Laker’s building, she started cooking nutritious meals for residents of her building with BFU’s support. Once a month, the group provides 40 pounds of vegetables and other groceries. She packages them up and freezes the meals for people to take as they need.
“I know how community-minded BFU is and so am I, so our lines in the sand are drawn in the same direction,” she said.