The nonprofit sector has played a critical role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing necessary and life-saving support to residents across our city. Grassroots (volunteer-led) organizations, collectives, and community groups in particular have been at the forefront, serving their communities and supporting clients from day one of the pandemic.
To recognize these extraordinary contributions, the City of Toronto offered $1,000 microgrants to help grassroots organizations, collectives, and community groups document their impact and share the stories of their work during this crisis.
Enjoy and be inspired by their videos, testimonials, reports, newsletters, web stories, and more below. Let's ensure that these groups and the communities they serve are at the centre of post-pandemic recovery efforts.
Directory of groups featured:
- Direct Your Life
- Bangladeshi Community Services
- Parkdale Women's Leadership Group
- Bathurst/Finch Seniors Society
- Parenting Group
- Coalition of Women in Leadership
- Friends of Thorncliffe Park
- Woburn Community Planning Table
- Sis to Sis Toronto
- Toronto ACORN
- Black Urbanism TO
- Tamil Canadian Centre for Civic Action
- Thorncliffe Wellness Café Group
- Footvolley Canada
- Shoot for Peace
- Engaged Communities
- and more to come!
Direct Your Life
Direct Your Life aims to prevent incarceration and recidivism among at-risk youth and recently released individuals in the Black community. Through their mentorship programs, the organization helps participants establish strong leadership skills and meaningful connections, and offers help to support a healthy and successful integration back to society.
My name is Joyce, and I have been with Direct Your Life for over four years. I love and believe in the work that we do with this organization. I am blessed with the wonderful opportunity to grow with Direct Your Life and pursue my passion for helping marginalized communities reintegrate into society. Many of us are individuals with lived experiences navigating the criminal justice system, and we are all ambitious about helping others navigate life's challenging obstacles. We are all dedicated to continuously spread the wisdom and knowledge we have developed over time through actionable steps by helping others become functioning members of society. Being a part of Direct Your Life has not only changed my life but the lives of others positively impacted by the work we do.
Bangladeshi Community Services
Bangladeshi Community Services (BCS) provides targeted support for newcomers, youth, women, and seniors through a local lens, serving the communities of Taylor-Massey, Crescent Town, and adjacent neighbourhoods.
Bangladeshi Community Services has been supporting the community in many ways during the pandemic for a long time and is still continuing to do so. Using this $1,000 funding [Nonprofit Recognition Day Grant], we will continue to engage our volunteer in helping through vaccine outreach, distributing flyers to help spread and inform the community as well as helping distribute groceries to those in need and handing out PPEs around the community to ensure people have the safety requirements for the virus, helping register for those who require assistance, and helping at pop up clinics by directing people to the pop up and answering questions or concerns about the vaccine.
— Dr. Nasima Akter, Executive Director of BCS
Parkdale Women’s Leadership Group
During the pandemic, Parkdale Women’s Leadership Group helped to sustain movements for racial justice and defunding the police by responding to direct calls from community members to skill up and offer new forms of care and support in moments of crisis that do not rely on the police. PWLG offered the trainings with local facilitators to build community solidarity and learning around several topics including Navigating Crisis, Suicide Prevention, Transformative Justice, Conflict Resolution, Community Healing, and more. In addition they provided wellness check-ins and essential needs/foods deliveries for vulnerable folks in their community.
Bathurst/Finch Seniors Society
The Bathurst/Finch Seniors Society (BASS) is an independent resident group of senior residents (those over the age of 55 as of January 1st of the current year) in the area bound by Dufferin Street on the west, Steeles Avenue on the north, Yonge Street on the east and Sheppard Avenue on the south. Our activities include:
- Outreach initiatives for isolated and/or unaffiliated seniors to provide opportunities to improve health and lifestyle circumstances,
- Organizing outside activities by interested groups within the Bathurst/Finch Senior Community, and
- Improving the health and social situation of members.
During the pandemic, Bathurst/Finch Senior Society extended its boundaries to include other GTA seniors and other age groups and transitioned programs online via Zoom, which allowed isolated seniors to have a new avenue to connect. BASS has presented 13 virtual workshops during this period, focusing on the importance of vaccinations, and their Vaccine Engagement Team was able to advocate minimizing vaccine hesitancy through educating and promoting vaccine clinic information, helping residents to book appointments, providing language and accessibility support, as well as information updates. BASS was also able to assist those who needed to book an appointment with any vaccine clinic, including members that required language assistance, required accessibility accommodations, and to non-documented citizens, i.e., North Korean refugee community, international visitors, international students, and the elderly.
Parenting Group is a grassroots group in Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park. Its mission is to empower parents to love their own children, and children of the entire community, by connecting and supporting parents through sharing resources and parenting experiences; to inspire children using STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) activities; to grow youth in leadership skills by engaging them in as many volunteering opportunities as possible; and to build parents in their parenting skills.
During the pandemic, Parenting Group led a number of initiatives that had a powerful impact upon their local communities. These programs have included a partnership with The Neighbourhood Organization to create an effective mask campaign video to encourage residents to abide by public health guidelines (watch the video below); launching a new “STEM en français” weekly workshop for students in French immersion programs supported by Parenting Group volunteers, volunteers from the YMCA French programs, and a grant from the City of Toronto (administered by Social Planning Toronto); playing an active role to increase vaccination rates in high-risk areas such as Don Valley/East York; being involved in community coordination efforts with the City of Toronto; and being on hand to help the Thorncliffe Vaccination Hub hit a record of 10,500 vaccinations in less than 24 hours.
Watch Parenting Group's mask campaign video:
Coalition of Women in Leadership
Coalition of Women in Leadership is a grassroots group of female leaders from Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park communities. During the pandemic, after a very successful food drive campaign conducted by Reach for Change, they united in order to serve a wider audience. During the pandemic, food insecurity and children's needs were so high that they made a decision to invite more leaders to the group in order to serve their communities more effectively and in a timely manner. As a result they now have 8 female leaders, and from March 2020 to September 2021 they completed the following projects:
- April 2020: Ramadan free meal project — 500 people, 150 families served a free meal twice a week during Ramadan ($5,400 was raised);
- August 2020: 31 Children with disabilities received a free backpack with school supplies ($300 raised);
- December 2020: Toy drive campaign — 200 children from across the city, 70 with special needs, received new toys and books for free (140 toys donated and $2,000 raised);
- January 2021: Together with Local Champions from the Centre for Connected Communities (C3), conducted Food Access project. Results have been presented to the City.
- Conducted a survey in neighbourhoods across the city to identify the needs around food accessibility,
- created a booklet of healthy recipes and recommendations for agencies on improving food access initiatives;
- donated 150 booklets to communities, agencies, and individuals
- April to May 2021: Ramadan free meal project — 600 people, 200 families again received free, homemade meals three times a week during the month of Ramadan ($6,000 raised).
Friends of Thorncliffe Park
We’re Friends of Thorncliffe Park, a grassroots group of four neighbours living in our community, working to create accessible, engaging, and inclusive spaces for the enjoyment of everyone. At the outset of the pandemic, we weren’t sure how our young group could help our neighbourhood through COVID-19. Our focus was community infrastructure projects, large and small, like improvements to R.V. Burgess Park and partnering with Toronto Parks, Forestry & Recreation to install Muskoka chairs in Leaside Park.
We weren’t first responders or essential workers, we weren’t part of any formal decision-making process or table, and we didn’t have a budget. We found our role, our contribution — to push back against COVID-19 — by focusing on our strengths and working in partnership with other local grassroots groups and stakeholders, sometimes formally (like helping to fundraise for arts and crafts kits for school-age children stuck at home), and sometimes informally (by sharing the message and encouraging participation in community food drives).
We built a robust social media presence to improve the accessibility of COVID education in our community, including symptoms, testing locations, and vaccination rollout information. We created our own content using recognizable, local landmarks to deliver straightforward COVID safety messages, and even made a video! In a small way, we feel like we’ve made a meaningful contribution, particularly with young people. When the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) began publishing weekly vaccine coverage estimates for eligible age groups by postal code, we turned Thorncliffe Park’s data into a graph and put it on Twitter. A mathematics class at our local high school, Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute, was paying attention, learning about math, graphing, and the importance of getting vaccinated, all at once!
While the pandemic is ongoing, Friends of Thorncliffe Park has branched out into community programming, hosting a ravine walk and visit to a local urban farm, and recently engaging children’s creativity in an outdoors "Art at the Park" event at our recreation centre. And we’ve got a few more events yet to go before the end of 2021!
Woburn Community Planning Table
The Woburn Local Planning Table (WLPT) is a resident-led and resident-run group formed in June 2019, originally supported and funded by the City of Toronto’s TSNS2020 Strategy. WLPT is completely volunteer run, and all members are grassroot leaders who subscribe to the mission and goal to support and help residents of Woburn to network, share information and ideas, give voice to community issues and priorities, and to nurture leadership and capacity amongst its residents.
During the pandemic, WLPT gave voice to Woburn residents who were marginalized and hardest hit by COVID-19, especially youth, racialized individuals, immigrants, international students, seniors, market-rent tenants, children, and families. They collaborated with local agencies to connect them to residents and residents to local services using their informal networks. Individual members of WLPT were involved in initiatives that supported youth mental health, community safety, employment and training opportunities, vaccine outreach, public transit and safe cycling advocacy, housing insecurity advocacy, community information pop ups; built resident leadership capacity; and assisted with the set-up of an emergency food pantry. WLPT has been a strong advocate for other grassroots groups left out of the crisis response tables, highlighting the value and importance of working with grassroots leaders/groups who have the flexibility, capacity, and trust of residents to pivot and navigate through informal channels of the community.
Sis to Sis Toronto
Sis To Sis Toronto is a youth- and Black-led grassroots organization that supports Black and racialized women (16-29 years old) on their journey of self-development through culturally relevant programs.
Their program participants describe Sis to Sis as one of the few places where they feel completely safe, supported, and authentic. The goal of their programming is to support women in applying the principles of positive self-talk, boundary-setting, personal finance, and goal-setting, with the aim of establishing healthier decisions in an array of life areas. Members noted how crucial safe spaces like these are for Black women in Canada, since it allows them to connect with others of similar identities and experiences. Spaces like these are crucial for youth, as they foster positive self-growth, confidence, identity, and connection. Programs also act as a mindful outlet during the pandemic for young women to release tension, feel inspired, and connect with others. The Sis to Sis program also encourages members to be more engaged with and connected to their communities. The program is filling gaps within the community and providing safe spaces and support for Black and racialized women in the Etobicoke North and surrounding areas.
Wanasah means dialogue, as in only through meaningful dialogue.
Black people in Canada are disproportionately impacted by racism and poverty and the resulting negative health outcomes. Many Black youth in Toronto are directly or indirectly experiencing a rise in gun violence, lower educational success, and societal racism. They are four times more likely to enter the mental healthcare system through the emergency department, and 50% of Black youth encounter police first before mental health service. Additionally, the wait time for counselling in Toronto is 280 days.
As COVID-19 increasingly impacts racialized communities, and incidents in the US and Canada once more shine a brutal spotlight on anti-Black racism, the mental health needs of Black youth are greater than ever before. Unfortunately, there are few organizations in the GTA that specifically serve these communities within anti-oppression and anti-racism/anti-Black racism frameworks. So, in a community where over 75% of the population identifies as a visible minority and 30% are under the age of 24, Regent Park became home to the first Wanasah project. Birthed over a decade ago out of a community-based peer mentorship program, Wanasah’s early years were spent serving over 500 youth over an eight-year span. Through the connections that were formed, the mentorship program morphed into a support network that served four families, 25 children, and a mother’s group. Subsequently this grassroots project and continued outreach in the community has increased engagement across the Black population in Regent Park.
The COVID-19 pandemic did not stop Wanasah’s work in the community. Wanasah was incorporated as a not-for-profit in August 2020 and is committed to providing services to Black youth ages 12 to 25 with mental health concerns and/or problematic substance use, and their families, in Regent Park and neighbouring areas. Co-founded by a Regent Park resident and community partners, Wanasah works in close partnership with various community-based organizations and trained professionals to support the needs of each youth and their family. Through continued work on the ground, Wanasah aims to expand its reach in the community and provide services that will meet the unmet needs of Black youth and their families.
Wanasah has adopted a model of care that is youth-informed and consistently aims to provide holistic, anti-oppressive, trauma-informed, anti-racist, and anti-Black racist care. Currently, Wanasah offers the following services:
- individual and group counselling/psychotherapy including youth-based small groups, 1-on-1 therapy, grief counselling, and support for mental health interventions
- outreach including service navigation, education, advocacy, and crisis response
- short-term case management services; we understand that success will only come through meaningful partnerships with communities and community agencies, so we aim to create and strengthen these connections through open dialogue
Wanasah is committed to ongoing learning, quality improvement, and evaluation in an effort to improve access to effective and holistic mental health services. Our vision is: safe and inclusive communities where Black youth with mental health concerns live with dignity and a sense of purpose.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) Canada is a multi-issue, membership-based community union of low- and moderate-income people. ACORN is an admirably tenacious, member-led advocacy group that has been on the frontlines of the most pressing issues during the pandemic — internet access, tenant rights/renovictions, predatory lending, etc. Their work has provided people with a strong sense of community and power during these especially challenging times when so many of us felt isolated and powerless.
If you’re interested in learning more, please check out their local organizing efforts at acorncanada.org/toronto.
Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network
Butterfly is a grassroot organization led by Asian and migrant Sex Workers and supports — one of the most marginalized and invisible communities in our city. Butterfly has supported Asian and migrant Sex Workers during the pandemic by:
- providing emergency fund, food, translation, transportation, and housing support;
- providing information on policing and advocating to stop racial profiling and policing;
- supporting the workers to access vaccines, health care, food, and other supplies;
- assisting the workers to access income and financial support (e.g., CERB, EI, OW, and ODSP);
- advocating for the rights of Asian migrant massage parlour workers and Sex Workers (particular those who are undocumented);
- supporting the workers to speak out to inform policy (e.g., newcomer policy, safety, and COVID response); and
- conducting research and consultation to understand the specific needs of the community.
Black Urbanism Toronto (BUTO)
Black Urbanism Toronto (BUTO) was born from love, respect, and hope for the vibrant community of Eglinton west, affectionately nicknamed Little Jamaica. The once-thriving Caribbean cultural and economic centre was negatively impacted by the construction of the Crosstown LRT.
BUTO has worked to preserve and advance Little Jamaica’s legacy as an African-Caribbean business district where Black entrepreneurship and community building is fostered. These efforts have included a Black Business Conversation report that captured the experiences of the Black business community and provided actionable recommendations on how to proceed. The recommendations led to the City taking several actions, including passing several motions to create a Little Jamaica Cultural District and undertake studies leading to heritage designation.
In partnership with Reclaim Rebuild Eglinton West, BUTO developed a GoFundMe campaign to support some of the recommendations coming out of that consultation process. The campaign's purpose was to support Black businesses to not only meet their short-term needs so that they can survive during the economic recovery from COVID-19, but also to chart a path for long-term economic sustainability through ownership.
Learn more about BUTO’s activities during COVID-19 in the report linked to below.
Tamil Canadian Centre for Civic Action
Tamil Canadian Centre for Civic Action (TCCCA) sits on the South Asian Vaccine Engagement Collaborative and has taken part in numerous initiatives to spread awareness and provide culturally appropriate information to the community. To increase vaccination rates and spread awareness of the COVID-19 vaccine, TCCCA sends weekly newsletters with the latest vaccination information in the City of Toronto. TCCCA also sits on the Senior Support Task Force, ensuring seniors in the community have easy access to information and resources on how to cope with COVID-19.
TCCCA also operates Thagavalkal. Thagavalkal’s primary mission is to provide information and resources to help the Tamil community during the COVID-19 pandemic. It conducts weekly sessions for the Tamil community, bringing in subject matter experts to share their expertise to equip the community with a range of tools and resources to ease their lives during this pandemic situation. Most of the sessions are targeted to specific groups such as youth, women, and seniors. Additionally, Thagavalkal operates a COVID-19 helpline that provides information about COVID-19 in different South Asian languages. Information related to various social areas such as housing, immigration, employment, food security, and education are also available on their platform.
Read TCCCA's “குமுகம் / Kumukam" newsletter for October:
Thorncliffe Wellness Café Group
The pandemic was a challenging time for everyone. While some people lost their jobs and were struggling financially, others had declining mental health with little to no support. The Wellness Café was greatly impacted by the pandemic. Prior to COVID, all our workshops and programming took place in person on a weekly basis. Community residents and families would look forward to gathering in person to chit-chat away about the stressors of the week while munching on some warm samosas and tea. For many, this was their escape from a busy week of work, family responsibilities, and school. The Wellness Café was more than just a space for the community to talk about their mental health struggles. It became a second home and family for many, where they would come to seek comfort and support every week. When the pandemic hit, all in-person programming and workshops were inevitably cancelled. It was a very difficult time for many of the participants of Wellness Café, especially those who were new to the country and could not access in-person support. However, the Wellness Café was able to find new and innovative ways to connect with our participants and residents virtually.
The Thorncliffe Wellness Café Group stepped up immediately to provide support to families who were struggling financially and did not even have food at their tables. The group bought groceries, delivered food hampers, and even cooked fresh meals during the month of Ramadan for families in need. They continued to meet on a weekly basis, virtually through Zoom, and connected with each other through WhatsApp groups by sending picture and video life updates. Virtual wellness check-ins were conducted, and resources for food banks, COVID-19 testing centres, and vaccine centres were shared. Since there was initially a huge fear with the vaccine and a language barrier, we invited a Public Health nurse to educate our group about the vaccine and it was translated into Urdu. We also distributed masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer in the community to ensure that everyone had access. When the pandemic slowly started getting better, we hosted a few socially distanced outdoor events to gather and connect in person once again.
The Youth Wellness Café also connected with the community in ways that may not have been possible before the pandemic. As soon as the pandemic struck, the youth team mobilized a social media strategy to create an online mental health and wellness community. Before COVID, our Instagram page had fewer than 100 followers. To our surprise, we now have over 2,000 followers from all over the globe. We spent hours researching, designing, and putting together informative mental health content and resources. As we work primarily with the South Asian and newcomer and immigrant community, our content was tailored toward these populations. We posted about topics such as setting healthy boundaries with family, exercising in isolation, virtual mental health resource lists, helpful mental health apps and online worksheets, and more. Through our Instagram page, we connected with many other community-based and youth-led initiatives including White Ribbon Canada. We were able to work in collaboration with them to participate in virtual panel events on topics such as empowering vulnerable youth and addressing mental health during COVID-19 and a dialogue on gender-based violence, community building, and allyship.
Moreover, we successfully recruited and trained a team of 10 youth volunteers. We grew our project from just 3 core members into 3 large teams: outreach, research, and social media. Our research team has been working closely with the social media team to translate academic research articles into easy-to-understand Instagram posts. We have done research on the mental health of South Asian youth in the GTA, competing cultural value systems, mental health implications of cultural conflict for second generations, and hate crimes and Islamophobia, to name a few. More recently, we have officially rebranded by launching our new logo and name, the MHWC (mental health and wellness café). To avoid confusion with the other Wellness Café groups and to prepare for our next step of registering as a nonprofit organization, we decided to rebrand. We worked closely with a youth resident of the community and a participant of MHWC to design the new logo and will continue rebranding over the next couple of months. We are also working to train our outreach team and outreach ambassadors in areas of facilitation and workshop development to offer a series of virtual mental health workshops.
To learn more about us and to see our mental health resources and content, please visit and follow our Instagram page: @the.mhwc
Gustavo, Leandro, and Lucas, co-founders of Footvolley Canada, discovered there was an opportunity to bring this vibrant blend of volleyball and soccer to their new home of Canada. During the pandemic, they participated in Volunteer Toronto’s “Getting Started as a Sport Organizer” program to learn how to safely launch their league in Canada. Just a few months into their inaugural season, footvolley is gaining steam and Footvolley Canada has created a new way to stay fit, connected, and safe through sport.
Shoot for Peace
Shoot For Peace is a grassroots project geared towards providing youth with a safe space to be themselves and learn photography. Our project targets low-income and vulnerable youth in the Regent Park community, a neighbourhood characterized by gun violence and poverty. The activities at Shoot For Peace consist of weekly art and personal development workshops. We also offer a drop-in program for youth to access our high-quality equipment and photography studio. Each year, our team organizes and executes an event gallery showcasing the artwork of our participants. Our goal is to help the kids become leaders, strengthen their identities, and teach them valuable skills they can use in the real world.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Shoot For Peace has strongly focused its efforts on addressing the reduction in programming available for low-income youth. We hosted regular virtual photography workshops specifically catered toward girls in Regent Park. As restrictions lifted, we began to place an emphasis on increasing youth access to safe spaces and allowed youth to use our studio and equipment in a safe manner by adhering to Health Canada guidelines.
Recently, Shoot For Peace held a "Coping Through COVID" photo exhibition. Our goal was to promote community healing through art. The pandemic has been a tough time for our youth participants because in-person programming is a huge aspect of this project. Not being around friends and family has taken a toll on all of us, and this is what the youth focused on for our exhibition. In this series, we explored hope, loss, and joy through images that have all been taken during the pandemic. More information about our project can be found on our Instagram page: instagram.com/shootforpeace_
Engaged Communities is an inspired example of community-led development that also exemplifies ways in which community leadership enhances and strengthens agency work. During the pandemic, Engaged Communities developed a hotline for the community, influential messaging to support COVID-19 precautions, information-sharing portals that addressed concerns and questions specific to their community, and more. Learn more about their work by reading the overview linked to below!