Like many parents, Chantel Hamilton is worried about sending her kids back to school amid a resurgence of COVID-19 infections in Toronto.
And like many residents of the Regent Park community, the 34-year-old mother of four is adding those concerns to others, including recent tragedy that shook her family.
For people here, the virus threatens health, employment, food security and more. Data shows racialized and lower-income groups are already suffering disproportionately due to long-standing inequities related to poverty and racism.
“I’m not totally comfortable with sending my oldest two to school but they’ve been home since March and I trust they’ll follow all the procedures and wear their masks, which is life as we know it now,” Hamilton says.
For her and others lined up Saturday in warm sunshine outside a Dundas Street East building, the tension eased a bit thanks to some homegrown help to lighten the back-to-school load.
Families entered a large room and walked a line of friendly volunteers handing out backpacks, personal protective equipment including masks, fresh produce and more. They emerged, arms and strollers laden, to the sight and smells of a free barbecue lunch.
“People in this community have suffered a lot due to the pandemic, employment and being stuck indoors,” said Murwan Khogali, an event organizer with grassroots youth group Healing As One.
“This is an opportunity to guage commmunity needs and say, ‘Hey, life is not too bad.’ We tried to create an event that transitions to the new normalities and accommodate for needs in a marginalizing, gentrifying community.”
His brother Walied Khogali Ali, a Regent Park community organizer, said the back-to-school event grew from successful pandemic aid in the form of free meals for low-income families during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
With virus rates rising and families facing the fear of school resuming, he said, multiple organizations stepped up to lighten their load even more.
The Red Cross and federal government donated PPE. Penny Appeal Canada and Yonge Street Mission also helped with masks and school supplies. FoodShare Toronto offered boxes filled with fresh produce.
The effort continues, with families offered financial literacy courses, with an eye to finding a path to home ownership in coming stages of the Regent Park redevelopment, and prepared meals and fresh food distribution through the fall.
Guiding her children to the door, Asae Kanna, expressed gratitude for the help and a little bit of lightness in a heavy time.
“My kids are 14, 8 and 6,” Kanna says. “I’m going to keep them home for a couple of weeks to see what happens. I’m scared. But this is a big help — I’ll be busy and can’t go get groceries all the time.”