Despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, one non-profit organization in the Greater Toronto Area is pushing ahead with helping people transition from shelters to their own homes.
One of the many setbacks that many people are now facing is unemployment. This financially impacts individuals and families, especially those moving into their own places from a shelter situations. That’s where The Fresh Start Project comes in. The volunteer-run group provides carloads of items to help its recipients fill the cupboards of their new homes — kitchen staples, bathroom products and more. It’s currently up and running in Mississauga and Burlington, Ont.
The project ensures its clients can get a fresh start while feeling cared for and supported by a whole community of people who want them to succeed.
Because of the pandemic, volunteers have slightly adjusted their process, including sanitizing items dropped off by donors before delivering them. Donors drop off their goods on an organizer’s front porch, to minimize physical contact. Then the organizers and volunteers sanitize, separate, and group items into boxes based on which room they belong in.
“I think one of the things we hear most from the clients we’ve helped is … ‘No one’s ever done this for me before,’” said Nancy Milton, who launched the project in 2019.
“No one’s ever shown they cared. No one has helped me just because.”
Watch: How The Fresh Start Project works:
Milton founded the project after hearing about a woman in need of help after leaving an abusive relationship. The woman was sleeping on the floor of a basement, and had nothing but the clothes she was wearing when she left her home. Milton posted a list of necessities that one needs to live comfortably on social media to help. She gathered every item on the list and more in just three days.
“I acknowledge their courage and their bravery and let them know that there’s 784 volunteer members … who believe in them and that’s why we’ve put this together for them,” said Milton, referring to the Mississauga chapter.
In February of 2020 a good friend of Milton’s, Susen Anderson, joined the effort. Word quickly spread, and the organization now has 1,800 members in Mississauga and Burlington combined. The project wants to spread the word and start chapters in more cities to give more people financial relief and moral support when transitioning out of shelters.
Among the boxes of items that are given to fill up shelves, drawers, and cupboards, each individual or family receives a gift basket and letter from The Fresh Start Project.
Liz, a former client who provided only her first name, said The Fresh Start Project provided her with invaluable support. She was in between jobs when someone introduced her to a women’s group, where she heard that she could receive the essential items and products she needs from the organization.
Had it not been for The Fresh Start Project, Liz would gradually be buying the items she needed. The organization went above and beyond to make her feel comfortable and special by giving her a care basket and a handwritten note.
“I am amazed. I cannot begin to count my blessings,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d even get some of those things that came my way.”
Agnes Erazo, a child and youth care worker, has been volunteering with The Fresh Start project since the beginning of 2020. In her line of work, she sees firsthand the need for mental health care and financial assistance.
Many of The Fresh Start Project’s clients are women who make the brave, yet difficult decision to escape abuse in their living situations. Some of these women take their children with them, while some go through it alone.
To those women, she says, “you’ve already taken the hardest step, which is moving forward.”
“We got you, we’ve got the rest of it,” Erazo said. “You just keep doing what you need to do to make your life better.”
Fiona Whincop, another volunteer, said the project also has environmental benefits because it repurposes gently used items.
“Not only are we helping somebody, but we’re also helping the Earth by not going out and purchasing a whole lot of brand new stuff,” she said.
The most rewarding feeling for Whincop, and the large group of members behind The Fresh Start Project is the feeling and power of giving. “It gives me so much joy, and I can only imagine what it must feel like for the person who’s actually receiving it,” said Whincop.
Read more positive pandemic stories from the Toronto Observer:
Community fridges pop up in Toronto neighbourhoods during COVID-19 pandemic
How Ontario’s parks became pandemic lifesavers
As the pandemic pushes food insecurity to new heights in Scarborough, one woman is pushing back