How to support your community while physically distancing

Resource | juin 18, 2020

Today, community park groups across Canada are discovering new ways of serving their communities to help them stay connected, supported, and most of all, safe.

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on community park groups and the work they do on behalf of their communities. In April, 120 community park groups responded to a national survey of their needs. We learned that:

  • 42% of park groups are responding directly to community needs, such as acquiring groceries for vulnerable community members.
  • Almost ⅓ of groups said that they are actively developing new ways of offering services outside of their usual park work.

Before COVID-19 our National Network hosted the vast majority of their events in city parks. In 2019, our National Network’s park events were attended by 242,010 community members and supported by 19,916 volunteers.

Today, community park groups across Canada are discovering new ways of serving their communities to help them stay connected, supported, and most of all, safe.

In a recent Park People webinar, Marie-Caroline Badjeck from Overbrook Community Association (OCA) in Ottawa and Hussein Janmohammed, the Artistic Director of Iftar Nights with Toronto’s MABELLEarts shared how they were bringing the power of parks home at a challenging time by highlighting new programming they developed to support their neighbours when they need it most.

  1. Don’t let the tech lead you

    Community groups across Canada have been leveraging technology to deliver nature and park experiences, from a “BloomCam” live stream of the cherry blossoms at High Park in Toronto to a virtual photo contest hosted by Halifax Northwest Trails Association. While these ideas are both innovative and inspiring, using technology is not the only way to engage your community while following physical distancing guidelines.

    In our National Network Survey, 96% of park groups said that their work in parks helps to build a sense of belonging in their community. What is your park group’s “special sauce” when it comes to helping people feel part of the community? How can you capture it and serve up this special feeling of belonging?
    If you’re not sure what people need right now, consider calling or emailing people who have come to your events and asking some questions to identify their needs. Write a few questions and create a script for volunteers to make it easier, or distribute an online survey.

    MABELLEarts created a script and a volunteer phone tree to quickly identify what was most needed in their community. The most vulnerable members of their network indicated that with their local food bank closed, they were struggling to access the food they need. MABELLEarts worked with local partners to deliver food on a weekly basis and have continued to run a phone tree to schedule daily phone calls with isolated community members.

  2. Meet people where they are (at home!)

    Community park groups have played a vital role in co-creating vibrant, caring communities and neighbourhoods. Although we can’t gather in person right now, these groups, supported by volunteers and community members, are still ‘showing up’ as vital social infrastructure for their communities.

    Overbrook Community Association (OCA) in Ottawa’s east end has played an instrumental role in keeping local parks and green spaces vibrant and animated, as well as keeping arts, culture and social connection alive in the Overbrook Community. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted OCA to develop Overbrook Community Cares based on principles of social justice, solidarity and mutual aid. Through the program they deliver grocery and supplies, phone neighbours who are sick or isolated, check-in on BIPOC/immigrant/refugee communities, connect people with appropriate community resources and assist with financial aid applications.

    In the webinar, Marie-Caroline shared that a local community member, Manock Lual, recognized that with stay-at-home orders in full effect, people were unable to get out to their barbers. To remedy this, Manock applied for (and received!) a grant from The Awesome Foundation for Quarantine Natural Care, a program with online tutorials showing youth from the black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) community how to properly treat and care for their skin, scalp, and hair on their own - a great example of putting community needs first! With support from his sister, Manock showcases ways youth can use simple ingredients found in their kitchen to practice self-care and self-love.

    In Toronto, MABELLEarts has hosted Iftar Nights for over five years. After a day of fasting during the month of Ramadan, families come together to enjoy a special meal, known as Iftar, then go out to the marketplace to enjoy traditional snacks and mingle with neighbours. MABELLEarts recreated this public celebration in a dynamic virtual format. As described in their promotional materials:

    “Together with a team of over 30 artists, we’ve created a month-long, intercultural community arts festival that weaves together music, puppetry, illustration, audio art and community voices to tell the story of a MABELLE Iftar Night that can be experienced in your own homes. Along the way, there are numerous opportunities to join in and help us tell this story.”

    Virtual Iftar Nights Act One - Arrival: Marhaba from MABELLEarts on Vimeo.

    Virtual Iftar Nights activities were shared online through eight acts, each corresponding with an important phase in a typical MABELLE Iftar Night. The team at MABELLEarts transformed the activities that traditionally take place in the park into virtual content to share online.


    Moments such as arriving in the park, waiting for the sunset, gathering together, raising lanterns, centring ourselves, welcoming the sunset, breaking our fast, and circling around the fire, were recreated as a short podcast series, with a shadow show created by Shadowland Theatre, musical compositions and reflection activities. The first visual podcast, called “Arrival: Marhaba,” creatively combines narratives of peoples’ shared experience of arriving in Mabelle Park during Iftar Nights, with a musical track, sound bites, and a digital shadow show, with each subsequent podcast building off of the last.

    Hussein Janmohammed reflected on MABELLEarts’ Virtual Iftar Nights:

    “Iftar Nights really was a beautiful, magical event and every time I came home from it, I felt transported into another world. And then, of course, with the onset of the pandemic, everything stopped. There was a desire to continue and find a way to bring this community gathering into a virtual space...It’s been this artistically and heartfelt, motivational process that we’ve been able to find ways in which the community can come together in this time.”

  3. Connecting offline…and in the real world

    As the weather warms up across the country, we know that people will want to head outdoors to connect with nature and their community.

    Beyond webinars and virtual gatherings, many community park groups are demonstrating great ways to host safe, small gatherings that adhere to physical distancing guidelines.

    • Town crier: The Crescent Heights Community Association (CHCA) in Calgary developed an unconventional way to share news around the neighbourhood - using a bicycle and sound system! People are encouraged to keep an ear out for CHCA’s town crier outside their homes.
    • Greening Communities: In Winnipeg, a TD Park People Grant is helping to support the Glenelm Neighbourhood Association’s Tree Plant-a-Palooza where small teams will plant new trees in three of their neighbourhood’s city parks. The tree plantings will allow people to get their hands dirty while maintaining strict physical distancing guidelines.
    • Get artsy!: Community groups in our network have planned physically-distanced sidewalk chalk art contests, photography contests, and an open-air art exhibition so we can get artsy while apart!

    We have seen so many community groups in Park People’s National Network step up to the challenge of serving their community. Although programs and events are certainly looking different, we’re learning a lot from each other along the way.

    Learn more!

    Park People recently held a webinar titled, “Bringing the Power of Parks Home: Park Programming in the Days of Social Distancing” where Kelsey Carriere, Senior Project Manager at Park People, chatted with Marie-Caroline Badjeck from Overbrook Community Association (OCA) in Ottawa and Hussein Janmohammed, the Artistic Director of Iftar Nights with Toronto’s MABELLEarts. Check out the full webinar recording here.


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