It’s easier than ever for local residents to engage with United Way of the Lower Mainland in their own neighbourhoods. A United Way volunteer connects with residents on Family Day 2019, when little libraries were installed in Clayton Heights, Surrey. Photo: Jennifer Sutherland, JLS Photography.

United Way charts innovative course for community

Building connections to tackle challenges of social isolation

As United Way of the Lower Mainland reflects on its 90th anniversary in 2020, it’s easy to look back at the accomplishments achieved over the last nine decades. Perhaps more exciting, though, is the innovative ideas taking the organization forward.

Like the community it serves, the United Way has changed a lot since its founding in 1930, and key to its longevity and continued relevance is its ability to evolve. While continuing to invest in local programs and services with demonstrable, sustainable impact, today United Way is also involved in local communities like never before, sharing the impact of local love.

Tackling the reality of social isolation

Why the shift? Whether due to changing family dynamics, the isolating effects of technology or myriad other factors, social isolation is increasing.

Research conducted by United Way found that nearly half of BC residents say they sometimes feel lonely – a statistic that may come as little surprise with the recent Blue Monday, Jan. 20, dubbed the loneliest day of the year.

Retirees may miss the camaraderie of the workplace while widowers may have lost the social engagements their spouse encouraged. Adults with long commutes may have little time left to build neighbourhood connections. Young people in a new neighbourhood may miss family and friend supports.

“Social isolation has many different faces and often it’s hidden; that’s why United Way is tackling loneliness head-on,” says Kim Winchell, Director, Social Impact, Community Impact & Investment for United Way of the Lower Mainland.

The implications of that loneliness are far-reaching, whether decreasing people’s resilience to life’s challenges or increasing mental or physical health concerns.

The good news is that the United Way’s research offers hope, too: 21 per cent said volunteering is more meaningful with other people you know.

“Programs alone, and citizens alone, cannot solve social isolation. But put together, we can create sustainable, healthy communities.”

United Way: At work in your community

That’s something that resonates with Penny Bradley, Executive Director, Alexandra Neighbourhood House, building community in the Surrey and White Rock communities since 1916.

When families from Clayton’s Katzi Elementary were in dire need of after-school care, United Way proposed a collaborative approach. They provided funds to Alexandra House for a new United Way School’s Out program, but also helped co-create the program in partnership with the agency and local residents.

United Way has worked with Bradley’s team to explore local needs and ideas. Today, one youth worker connects with younger students and another with older ones, who are mentored to give back by working with their younger counterparts. Through that rewarding experience, it’s hoped they might later return as volunteers, Bradley explains.

“It’s been really exciting for us to do things differently. It’s building those connections and volunteerism from the ground up.”

From that foundation, more is coming.

“If you have engaged neighbours and people talking to each other, it builds a stronger community.”

Other United Way initiatives include its grassroots Hi Neighbour program, working with local residents to build neighbourhood programs that build connections, whether it’s “little libraries,” seniors’ walking groups or block parties.

To learn more visit uwlm.ca/hineighbour

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Now it’s in 90th year, United Way continues to partner with donors, citizens, workplaces and unions, but its Hi Neighbour initiative brings these groups in much closer collaboration, in their own neighbourhoods. In 2019 workers from CUPE 402, local schools and people at the Surrey Pretrial Centre fabricated little libraries and worked with residents to install them in Clayton Heights, Surrey. Photo by JLS Photography

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