The head of United Way Cape Breton is worried about what might happen to vulnerable people who need help as the economy and society transition away from COVID-19 restrictions.
The agency was able to distribute just under $1 million in emergency relief money last year, but government pandemic programs are starting to wind down and Cape Breton's poverty rate is among the highest in the country.
"I am concerned about this year coming, because if we don't do something to get back up to where we were pre-COVID, our communities could be in trouble," said executive director Lynne McCarron.
According to a recently published accountability report, United Way Cape Breton received more than $600,000 through the federal emergency community support fund and more than $300,000 from the provincial Atlantic compassion fund last year.
That money went directly to organizations that helped nearly 20,000 people across the island with food, internet and transportation.
McCarron said when COVID-19 hit, governments started planning business and worker relief programs, but they also wanted to bypass bureaucracy and get money to people right away while those programs were being designed.
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"When it first happened, there was nothing in place, so we needed to figure out how to get these people what they needed quickly," she said. "With schools closed, kids didn't have breakfast."
McCarron said the Cape Breton agency is small and the emergency funding initially came with a condition: it was not to be used for administrative costs.
That meant the office's three staff worked long hours, often without any days off.
"I was in here one morning … trying to get some extra work done," she said.
"The phone rang and it was a young woman and she was crying. She couldn't get to her [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings and now she felt even more vulnerable, more at risk of drinking and needed me to help her and she needed a device and she needed internet and she needed to be able to access her AA meetings, so that can spiral in a very different way if the supports aren't there."
McCarron said it was worth it to work with local organizations, identify needs and find ways to quickly address them.
"I know this is going to sound weird, but it was really exciting and fun to be part of, to see how people stepped up and were able to help in a way that they've never helped before."
McCarron said she's optimistic that the economy will rebound and donations will return to pre-pandemic levels, but she and her staff are ready to keep working for those who need help.
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