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Supporting clients: When virtual assistance is not enough

29 October 2020
Author: Wendy Abbott-Serroul
There is no doubt that the ability to leverage innovative and useful tools such as Zoom, smart phones and other video platforms has ensured that during the pandemic, important meetings, relationships and support networks could be maintained. However, in our zeal to embrace technology and its ability to keep us connected we are reminded that, in some cases, this simply cannot replace, nor should it, the experience of being able to connect face-to-face. There are many reasons why engaging via a digital screen may not be as effective as meeting in person.  Language barriers, lack of computer skills, time constraints, and health issues are just a few of the challenges. Although COVID-19 has forced us into an increasingly digital environment, it’s important for frontline organizations to consider the circumstance of the people they serve to determine which type of connection is best for the type of support needed. 
For Ala Abdulkarem, Financial Outreach Worker, of The Working Centre, helping clients access much needed benefits is a passion that the pandemic could not stifle. Still, online and phone interactions were proving to be difficult given the nature of her work. Applying for and accessing benefits can be complicated and challenging as each person’s circumstances are unique and varied. Upon re-opening in a modified fashion in July 2020, Ala was able to make a life altering change for one client in particular. 
Gorbar, a 42 year old newcomer to Canada, had come to The Working Centre looking to apply for Ontario Works (OW) and was in desperate need of income support. It wasn’t clear at first why he was looking to apply for OW, and through conversation she discovered that Gorbar had recently been on Employment Insurance (EI). Ala found it challenging to understand his rationale for wanting OW and difficult to get a sense of his finances overall. It was clear that a face-to-face meeting would help alleviate the confusion. 
Upon meeting, Ala learned that Gorbar’s EI benefits had ended in April, and he initially did not want to apply for OW as he was looking to find another job. He had been living off a small amount of savings. Gorbar was hoping to sponsor his family to come to Canada in the future, and was aware that moving to social assistance would negatively affect his ability to sponsor them. 
Ala helped sign him up for a My Service Canada account to see his past claim details. Through deeper discussions, she discovered that Gorbar qualified for three cycles of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) benefits following the end of his EI payments because his previous workplace had closed due to COVID-19 and all of his job searches were hampered for the same reason. 
Ala was able to help Gorbar receive $6,000 within three days, money that Gorbar had no idea he was eligible for. He had been quite stressed trying to manage his budget, save and pay bills since losing his job and EI benefits. This revelation was simply incredible to him. 
Gorbar is representative of so many people that come to The Working Centre for help. Many are looking for a job during the pandemic, are confused about which benefits they may be eligible for and want to avoid applying for OW. As Ala says, “this happens so often when people come to us, they bring their paperwork and we end up going down a completely different road than expected. They come for one reason and get supported in other ways.” Distinctive in this is the face-to-face interaction. Already confusing experiences are only exacerbated by COVID-19, and being able to walk alongside people, listen to them, connect with them, and help alleviate their anxiety means supporting them in applying for the right benefit at the right time and map out what comes next. While we cannot discount the importance that online, digital and video tools offer as a means to connect, “for us it’s all about trust” Ala concludes. Meeting with people and giving them the correct supports is so valuable and can make a dramatic difference in someone life.  
Prosper Canada is working in partnership with West Neighbourhood House, Jane/Finch Centre, Agincourt Community Services Association, and The Working Centre to strengthen the Financial Empowerment and Problem Solving (FEPS) Program over four years. Building on the expansion and replication of the program over 2015-2017, the FEPS program helps Ontarians living on low incomes to improve their financial situation by accessing government income transfers and building their capacity for financial security. 
The Working Centre is a non-profit organization established in the spring of 1982 as a response to unemployment and poverty in downtown Kitchener. The Working Centre’s main projects give people access to tools to create their own work combined with continuous ways of learning and co-operating. 


Wendy Abbott-Serroul is the Senior Marketing and Communications Manager at Prosper Canada. She works closely with the entire organization to identify communications needs and supports the efforts to increase awareness and the profile of Prosper Canada.

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