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Understanding the experiences of local residents key to building more resilient families

January 24, 2022

Karen is a Leamington mother who connected with United Way through the Summer Eats for Kids program. Karen has four sons and works part-time as a shift manager at a local fast food restaurant. While a little shy to be in photos, she shared her story to help paint a picture of the challenges she faces as a single mom living in the County.

The first thing Karen talked about was the difficulty of even taking advantage of some of the supports the community offers.

“I appreciate every little bit helps, you know,” says Karen. “It was just hard sometimes going to get that little snack for the kids when I’m working.”

Karen says that life gets pretty small when you are experiencing financial barriers.

“It’s bills and groceries, you know, that’s what I worry about. Just every week, that’s sort of always on your mind,” says Karen. “Because you live paycheque to paycheque. The bills are high or the food is high, you know, and you have to choose to either pay your bills or buy groceries.”

Karen says living in the County poses additional obstacles to being an active member of Windsor-Essex community.

“I’m stuck out here. I work and come home and that’s really just because of the cost of transportation and not being able to get into the city.”

Fortunately, Karen’s kids have been able to participate in a few United Way-supported programs. Her teenage son is in grade 11 and is in United Way’s On Track to Success (OTTS) program, which provides some wrap-around supports for his family as well.

Her youngest sons received homework help during the pandemic through an online tutoring program supported by United Way. The kids struggled with their academics during the lockdown. Karen’s mom was also helpful, taking her two youngest boys to her place during the week. That way, Karen was able to work while her kids did online learning during the lockdown.

She is proud of their resilience through the ordeal.

“My kids are so easy going, the little boys. They said they’re lucky to be back in school. Because they didn’t like staying home all the time.”

Karen says the OTTS Success Coaches have been personally supportive, especially during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when she was asked to quarantine because fellow staff members contracted COVID and she was unable to work.

“Stephanie and Megan [OTTS Success Coaches] were always there when I needed someone to talk to,” says Karen. “I was struggling to keep up with my bills every month.”

Karen's youngest boys
Karen’s two youngest boys

During the summer, an On Track to Success Coach also delivered weekly baskets filled with fruit, vegetables and nutritious snacks from the Summer Eats for Kids program when Karen or her mom were unable to attend the program due to their work schedules.

“The positive impact was just having a little bit of extra snacks that helps a bit with the grocery budget.”

But even that support was often not enough. Karen supplements her groceries by attending other Leamington food banks from time to time when things get particularly hard. So what keeps Karen fighting day to day?

“I keep going, to be better than the day before, just keeping that positive attitude,” she says.

Every mom has dreams for their child’s future, so what does Karen want for her boys?

“To get their education. Education is the one thing they need to do to get where you want to be – stay in school.”

The On Track to Success program has helped her teen son focus on being successful in school.

Karen has also ‘paid it forward’ by lending a hand to another mom and her child who needed help managing an abusive relationship. She used her experience to point her friend to social resources in the community.

“If we are here to help each other, we wouldn’t have the burden that I see another person suffer the way they do, you know?” she says. “We all gotta be there for each other.”

On Track to Success is part of United Way’s Cradle to Career Strategy. Graduating high school is one of the 6 milestones of the strategy. High school graduates are more likely to have better employment and earning opportunities and are less likely to experience poverty, receive public assistance or be involved in the justice system.

The Virtual Learning Program was developed during the COVID-19 pandemic and aligns with Cradle to Career milestones for meeting elementary math and literacy standards. Academic supports are offered through out-of-school programs. Students who are proficient in grade three reading and grade six math are more likely to complete secondary school and be prepared for the workforce.

For United Way, it’s important that families have access to supports that can strengthen children in reaching their potential, including nutritious food and mental health counselling, social inclusion, and access to transportation and housing. These social determinants of health help to build more stable, resilient families.

Stay tuned for news about new community program investments in the coming months that will support children from Cradle to Career.

By donating to United Way, you’re supporting the Cradle to Career strategy.

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