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How to Harness Online Volunteering To Provide Social Support for Vulnerable Newcomers

Working RemotelyVolunteer Management

This guest blog post was written by Natasha Comeau, Volunteer and Communications Coordinator at Together Project, as part of TechSoup Canada's new Connecting for Change series. Today, Together Project shares the story of how they continue to provide support to newcomers and refugees during the pandemic through online volunteering.

Illustration: Emilie Musczak

Together Project, a charitable initiative of Tides Canada, connects refugee newcomers and Canadians to build stronger, more integrated communities. Based in the Greater Toronto Area, our flagship Welcome Group program matches groups of five or more volunteers with newly arrived refugees for six months of social and integration support.

On March 12th, Together Project sent out an email to active Welcome Group volunteers to postpone all physical contact with the newcomer refugees we support; a move that has challenged our initiative to develop new methods of support for newcomers from a distance. We responded to COVID-19 by adapting our program in order to provide remote social support.

While this new model is only two months in the making, we have learned a great deal about how volunteers can provide remote support to vulnerable newcomers. One of the main takeaways has been widespread interest in the model, we have had hundreds of people reaching out to volunteer remotely. As a result, we have developed a greater capacity to onboard and train volunteers remotely. This has allowed us to continue connecting newcomers with volunteers by making new matches.

We have also encountered new challenges in providing remote support. While some matches have remained close during COVID-19 and perhaps even connected more frequently than they previously had, other groups have struggled to adapt and maintain the same level of connection within the group. This is because the program is almost entirely built on the premise of close social connections. It is therefore understandable that some newcomers and volunteers weren’t comfortable shifting or starting relationships entirely online.

During COVID-19, volunteers have been addressing new challenges in their matches, like helping newcomers access digital devices for their children to do at-home learning, familiarizing newcomers with video conferencing apps, helping newcomers navigate financial supports, and setting up food bank deliveries for isolated newcomer seniors. These unforeseen challenges have actually provided a good opportunity for matches to stay in touch with one another until they can meet in person.

Illustration: Emilie Musczak

Since March, Together Project staff have been working from home and all meetings have moved to platforms like WhatsApp and Zoom. We have adapted our volunteer onboarding process to take place through video chats and are sharing what we’re learning about remote support with new and existing volunteers. At the same time, we have consistently updated our online resources, developed new guides and worked to stay informed on refugee supports available during COVID-19.

But the area of our initiative that has had to change the most significantly is how we are providing support to newcomer refugees both Government-Assisted Refugees and more recently refugee claimants. Support has always depended on the needs and priorities of the newcomer families, but it generally includes helping newcomers practice English, supporting them in seeking employment, furthering their education, connecting them to health services, showing them around Toronto or Mississauga and socializing with them.

Since the program began in 2017, much of the activity in our matches has revolved around in-person interaction. Welcome Groups would drop by to help newcomers practice English or resolve bureaucratic issues, or help them navigate their community and its service – showing them the local library, or familiarizing them with public transit.

Such regular social contact is not possible during COVID-19, but we wanted to continue to support newcomers, especially during this challenging time. We therefore needed to consider what forms of support are still possible and what volunteers could do remotely. By conducting a needs assessment with newcomers we identified what sorts of support were needed given the new circumstances. Then we checked with volunteers to see if they would be comfortable offering assistance in this new way.

Moving support onto platforms like WhatsApp, Skype or Zoom was the first step, and easier for some households more than others. Our matches have always had an aspect of remote support, usually occurring through WhatsApp conversations. These platforms were familiar to some newcomers who use video chats to connect with family and friends across the world. Others do not have access to a computer or internet connection and are therefore limited to receiving support over the phone.

The areas of support have also changed during COVID-19. For households with limited English, volunteers have been focusing a lot of energy on language practice in the match, as English language classes have been cancelled. For households with children doing at-home learning, volunteers have been helping with homework. And across all our matches, staying connected online has become increasingly important during COVID-19. One of our matches was featured in a Toronto Star article to discuss how volunteers and the newcomers are managing remote social support.

Illustration: Natasha Comeau

Our matches have been using phone and video conversations to not only work on language or employment skills but to also connect and spend time with other people while observing physical distancing. This is especially important for our youth matches and single parent matches, as many young refugee claimants or single parent claimants arrive in Canada alone, or with dependent children, and do not have people they can talk to right now. At the same time, it is worth noting the resilience of many newcomers during this period. We have seen firsthand the readiness of newcomers to respond to this challenge with ease.

The new circumstances of COVID-19 have challenged us at Together Project to adapt and develop our program to support newcomers through a difficult period of time. We have been learning together with our program participants and while there have been hurdles to overcome, there have also been many new opportunities for growth for our initiative. We hope to be able to use aspects of remote social support to continue to expand our programming into the future, and hope the enthusiasm we have seen during this period for supporting newcomers in Canada will continue as well.

For more information about remote social support volunteer opportunities, please visit our website at togetherproject.ca or contact natasha@togetherproject.ca. Please follow us on Instagram or Twitter at @together_hello or on Facebook @together.hello.

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If you're curious about how online volunteering can help your nonprofit provide support to vulnerable populations during COVID-19, and if you'd like to hear more about Together Project's strategies and lesson learned, join TechSoup Canada's upcoming webinar on July 29th at noon ET. Registration is open!