Apr 20th, 2023
Many Hands Make Light Work: Volunteers Donate Time and Skills to Improve OCH Communities
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What makes a community? Volunteers donate their time and leave a legacy in OCH communities. An effective volunteer program looks at project impact, collaboration and being a community partner.
The inspiration behind Ottawa Community Housing Corporation’s Volunteer Engagement Program is the desire to beautify every OCH community. As a corporation, we also wanted to link with the wider community to increase understanding of social housing and tenants – breakdown walls and reduce stigma.
Many of OCH’s homes were built in the 1970s – that means capital pressures – such as structural repairs, and retrofits – often take precedence over the “nice to have” items such as a new coat of paint, a garden bench or landscaping.
But those projects matter. They make a building a home. And improvements to common areas, such as new furniture in the lounge or a sectional bench in the courtyard, can have far-reaching benefits beyond just the physical infrastructure.
Renewal of communities fosters a sense of pride in residents. Beautification to reduce vandalism is the cornerstone of Crime Prevention Ottawa’s Paint it Up program. The World Health Organization says age-friendly communities can reduce social isolation, so we want residents to have spaces that encourage gathering.
The first OCH volunteer project was completed in January 2011 by a group of students from Algonquin College. Students returned year over year, maintaining social connections with residents in communities that they visited multiple times. Now OCH averages more than 40 projects each year, with hundreds of volunteers donating thousands of hours.
Last year volunteers visited 76 OCH communities – home to more than 8,000 residents. The completed projects made a difference. Items such as garden boxes, often built by volunteers, help feed communities. Community gardens are, in turn, manned by tenant volunteers – the food goes to residents and community food programs.
A volunteer program must break new ground to continue to grow. As our tenant population changes and has more complex needs, we have looked at ways to address some issues to preserve successful tenancies and prevent housing loss.
In 2022, OCH launched a pilot program called Community Volunteer Income Tax Program with the Canada Revenue Agency to host tax clinics for residents – who, because of changes to the Housing Services Act, are now required to provide a Notice of Assessment to maintain their rent-geared-to-income status. Volunteers were able to see a real-time impact as the taxes were completed and residents were able to access government credits and rebates.
Connected Canadians is a treasured OCH partner that helps bridge the digital divide for OCH seniors – providing technology training and workshops on navigating the web and accessing resources.
Benefits to volunteering partners
When a group comes to complete a project in OCH communities – they are provided with all the tools and training they need to complete the work. We know that when a corporate volunteer group works together, it builds a better team back at their office. In addition, employers that allow their staff to participate in volunteer projects are more likely to retain their employees.
Volunteers also provide opportunities for apprentices to gain much-needed work experience. A new partnership in 2022 with Tomorrow Trades – an organization that provides training for students who wish to enter the construction trades – saw community improvement projects completed in several communities. The work ranged from new railings to fence repairs and home turnovers – providing them with valuable hands-on experience.
At OCH, we must be the change we wish to see. Our staff is also involved through our Employee Engagement Program. Our team has partnered with the Ottawa Food Bank, the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, the St. John Camp for Ukrainian Refugees, and Christie Lake Kids, to name a few.
The Volunteer Engagement Program staff wants the positive impact of our work to have a ripple effect. As a result, our team is working with the staff at Toronto Community Housing to provide information on our best practices and lessons learned.
Volunteerism is where compassion meets action
The OCH Volunteer Engagement Program received a Volunteer Ottawa Award (VOscar) for Outstanding Volunteer Program in 2022. The program is managed by Mehdi Louzouaz