Portraits of frontline heros

  • June 28, 2020

The Registers Michael Swan takes snapshots of some of the people making a difference

Finding ways to help the homeless

Marsha FoxMarsha Fox
Christine Way SkinnerChristine Way Skinner

Marsha Fox has a grin on her face when she calls herself “a street walker.” She wanders around Newmarket, street by street, searching for places where homeless people might be sheltering.

She knows they’re there, and their situation has only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. She and her husband ask how they are, ask if they need anything, let them know someone is there for them.

In the decade since she retired from the Toronto Catholic District School Board, where she began in teaching and moved to administration, she’s been involved in numerous causes and organizations that help the poor, including serving dinner at St. John Chrysostom Parish.

“I had made the decision that part of my retirement plan would be that I was not going to disengage from society,” she said. “My husband and I talked about it — if there’s anything we can do to help improve the situation of the homeless, then let’s try to do it.”

Once COVID hit, her usual volunteer activities became tough.

“I’m involved in volunteering at three different places,” she said.

But when isolation and physical distancing became necessary, “that was it” for her usual pursuits. But she and her friends found new ways to carry on.

Christine Way Skinner, lay pastoral associate at St. John Chrysostom, says COVID-19 meant finding new ways to reach those in need. “Our responsibility for the poor is central to living our Gospel message,” she said.  “We had to figure out how we were going to serve the poor in this situation.”

Their parish collaborated with other churches and the Town of Newmarket to provide take-away meals for Inn From the Cold, a program that provides services for the homeless.

“The plan changed along the way, which seems to be the way everything happens,” Skinner said. “Which is good. That’s a sign of health. It means adaptability.”

Caring for extended ’family’

Sharon AndrewsSharon Andrews

Sharon Andrews has been a personal support worker at Scarborough Retirement Residence for 30 years. She knows an ordinary flu can be devastating at a seniors’ building, and she worked through the 2003 SARS crisis.

So COVID-19 has been tough. “It’s been a lot of challenge,” she said.

But with the personal protective equipment she needs and the backing of management and co-workers, Andrews counts herself lucky among the ranks of the country’s PSWs.

“I love what I do. I love the residents,” she said.

"It’s a family business. Working here is just a bigger family."

Marie Josee LafontaineMarie Josee Lafontaine
Betty DurdyBetty Durdy

Owner Marie Josee Lafontaine says that getting through the COVID lockdown is mainly a question of family. More than inheriting a family business, she inherited families that rely on her to care for their elderly, as well as a family of employees, many of whom have worked together for decades.

Lafontaine bumped the salary of frontline staff even before the government mandated it. She’s been ordering pizza for staff, talking to her employees, making sure everybody is doing well physically, spiritually and mentally.

Resident Betty Durdy looks forward to again taking her meals in the dining room with everyone. During lockdown, she can greet other residents at morning exercises, when residents stand outside their door in the hallway as staff lead the group.

She also enjoys Tuesday afternoon “thank-you parades” of cars that drive through the residence’s driveway displaying signs and messages of gratitude.

“Thank you staff” and “Thank-you SRR heroes” are written on hand-made signs.

“This parade is for you. We love you,” Lafontaine tells her staff. “Thank you for your dedication.”

Andrews knows all 110 residents and the approximately 70 full-time and part-time employees who care for them. “It’s a family business. Working here is just a bigger family,” she said.

She can’t remember wishing for another job. “I feel fulfilled. I feel as though I did my duty.”

Keeping the pastoral light lit

Fr. Efren Alvarez-PelayoFr. Efren Alvarez-Pelayo

When you’re a priest and it’s your job to be with people, the COVID-19 lockdown might feel like you’ve been laid off. Fr. Efren Alvarez-Pelayo ignored the pink slip and carried on.

“The community, obviously, had to distance themselves,” said Alvarez-Pelayo, pastor at St. John Chrysostom parish in Newmarket, Ont.

Like priests across Canada, he streamed Masses and found himself getting e-mails from people as far away as England. He got e-mails and phone calls from parishioners he never or rarely heard from, including from a retired, former St. John pastor.

He also took in a couple of seminarians — young men who couldn’t stay in St. Augustine’s Seminary and couldn’t go home because international flights were cancelled.

“Having somebody in the house helped a great deal,” he said.

Pastoring by phone and Skype, Zoom, YouTube and e-mail was not something Alvarez-Pelayo had ever imagined doing, but that didn’t stop him.

“For our part, inside, we’ve made efforts to communicate with people in different areas. We struggled with that a little bit, because it’s a new way of dealing with the parish,” he said.

His goal was to maintain cohesiveness.

“So the connection really, that connection remained,” he said. “To this day, I’m still getting that sense of people being connected.”

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