Montreal community group fills school void and closes child care centers for families in need

Nestled behind a church in Montreal’s Hochelaga neighborhood, Respit Providence is easy to miss. The small but powerful team of women behind the organization has transformed its service over the past two months, to meet a new desperate need in the community since the arrival of COVID-19.

Normally, the organization’s mission is to provide respite housing to children from families in difficulty. Their proactive approach, aimed at preventing neglect, allows parents and children to break up with each other.

Before the pandemic hits, Respit Providence would offer respite services to children up to five years old, as well as their older siblings. In one year, he took turns serving around 150 children in the eastern part of the city and helping provide food for around 30 families.

When COVID-19 arrived, it all came to a screeching halt.

“We had to adapt and ask ourselves how we could help the families we normally serve,” said Maya Iwaskow, Respite Providence community coordinator.

Respit Providence community coordinator Maya Iwaskow unloads boxes of fresh food. His organization delivered food to 180 families in east Montreal, four times the number that used the service before the pandemic. (Jaela Bernstien / CBC News)

Their response was to expand what was a small basket of food service into a food delivery operation. In partnership with Moisson Montreal, they sent their early childhood educators and social workers to the community in refrigerated trucks, going door-to-door to families in need.

The demand for this service has quadrupled and they are now delivering food and other essentials to around 180 families.

No more school breakfasts, snacks

Iwaskow explained that when functioning, schools and daycares provide essential services, including subsidized snacks and meals, foods that thousands of children in Montreal depend on.

Now these kids are all at home, 24 hours a day, and their parents are scrambling to stretch their budgets to cover three meals a day, plus snacks.

“We work with families who don’t have internet access, who can’t order online. They don’t have credit cards,” Iwaskow said.

Many of their parents are also single moms or dads who don’t have a social network they can rely on, making basic groceries like grocery shopping almost impossible.

“A single parent with two young children, three young children, they cannot go to the grocery store with their family. They cannot leave the children alone at home,” she said.

Food delivery also allows Respite Providence staff to stay in close contact with families in need and to monitor them regularly. It is a chance for them to offer their support and to make sure that no one is on the brink of crisis.

While staff members say they will continue to be creative and find ways to help their community, they warn that for many families, school closures could have real and lasting consequences.

For more on this story, watch the video above.

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