Due to the increased vulnerability of elderly populations to COVID-19, many have become isolated in their homes away from families. To combat this, YMCA of Greater Toronto launched “The Bright Spot”, an online community for older adults to experience online classes and activities to provide community resources from the comfort of home. This week we spoke to the President and CEO of YMCA of Greater Toronto, Medhat Mahdy, to learn more about this new initiative and all the other work the YMCA of Greater Toronto does in the community.
Describe your charity/non-profit in a few sentences.
For more than 165 years, the YMCA of Greater Toronto has provided leadership and worked with partners in solving complex social problems to create real, measurable outcomes that have strengthened the social health and fabric of our communities. As a charity, the Y helps people shine through a variety of programs, including employment and immigrant services, family and youth services, housing, health and fitness programs, child care and camps.
What problem does it aim to solve?
The YMCA of Greater Toronto has always been dedicated to providing people within our communities with the tools they need to achieve greater well-being.
Due to physical distancing requirements during COVID-19, the Y recognized that older community members are facing challenges, including connecting with friends and loved ones and maintaining routines, like walking, that are important for physical and mental health. Increasing support for seniors was previously identified as part of the Y’s new strategic plan and after learning about some of the challenges that older adults are facing, The Bright Spot came together quickly to provide an online community where older adults can shine. This site offers everything from exercise classes and small online group discussions to trivia nights and mindfulness tutorials – all free of charge.
When did you start/join it?
Over 40 years ago, as a young immigrant from Egypt, I was welcomed into the Y as a part-time tennis instructor at the downtown Central YMCA. Since then, I became committed to working at the Y and ensuring that every young person in our community has the same opportunities that I did, thanks to the experiences I was given through our 165 year-old charity.
What made you want to get involved?
Having been involved with the Y for so many years and joining as a young person myself, I’ve been able to experience firsthand the power of helping young people reach their full potential and live their dreams. In leading the Y, it’s our goal to bring more of the Y’s programs and services to more people in our communities. I’ve been able to lead initiatives providing access to sports, child care, community events, fitness programs for all ages and life stages, housing programs for young people, employment counselling, leadership development opportunities, summer day camps and more to our community. During this pandemic, we’ve been able to continue offering these programs to people, both young and old, by pushing our boundaries and moving away from physical support, to virtual support. The Bright Spot is an incredibly innovative initiative that we are so proud to be able to offer our older adult community, in a time when they need support the most.
It’s rewarding to see the effect that these services can have on people and families and the assurance they feel knowing that the Y is here for them.
What was the situation like when you started?
When I became CEO I was concerned with the situation in the GTA: high youth unemployment, the growing number of youth in the NEET category (not in education employment or training), the need for greater access to quality child care, the number of people living in low income households and the children growing up in those households just to name a few of the gaps in the social determinants of health. I felt that the YMCA could step up more to address many of these issues. Having lived in many cities around the world I feel that Toronto is one of the best places but this is not true for the majority of people. We are driven by a desire to make the GTA the best place for everyone. This aspiration meant that I needed to organize our charity so we could bring more YMCAs to more people in more communities. It also meant that we had to add capabilities such as research to help us measure our impact. I was also concerned that many donors did not see us as their charity of choice despite our great work so we added fundraising capacity to help fuel our vision.
How has it changed since?
I’ve seen incredible growth of the organization over the years, with no indication of slowing down any time soon. We have more than 450 locations across the GTA, and our programs are delivered by more than 6000 staff and 5500 volunteers. The Y continues to push boundaries to be able to offer more programs and services to surrounding communities, while ensuring these offerings are accessible. It’s been a priority for our teams to be there for newcomers and street-involved youth, and to be able to offer affordable, accessible and high-quality childcare to working families.
What more needs to be done?
The Y will continue to work alongside partners to ensure that as things change and evolve, especially as we move away from the COVID-19 climate, these services are still available to our communities and we continue to explore new services and offerings, so that we’re meeting the needs of the community – and beyond.
How can our readers help?
Recently, the Y set up a COVID-19 response fund to support our efforts, visit here to learn more or make a donation – everything helps.
Do you have any events coming up?
In light of COVID-19, many programs and activities have shifted online and each day, live classes are available on Facebook Live ranging from health and fitness classes, to camp-based activities like fun & games and children’s programs like story time. Further, The Bright Spot also has live classes and programs available each day for older adults, including health and fitness programming as well as activities like Bingo, that are available on our Youtube channel or via Zoom links that can be found on the site itself.
Where can we follow you?
PAY IT FORWARD: What is an awesome local charity that you love?
My awesome charities are the YMCA and CAMH. I would also highlight LUSO – a charitable foundation that provides day programming and respite services. As a parent of a child who lives with a severe disability, this organization has been a godsend.