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Shining a light on the contribution front-line workers

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For months after Maurice Adongo arrived in Canada as a refugee from Tanzania, he would wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, thinking he was about to be captured and needed to get away. His heart racing, he would sit up and wonder if he could escape through the window. Then he’d realize that he was in Toronto; he was safe.

Today, Adongo recognizes that his own journey of dealing with post-traumatic stress has informed his engagement with and for vulnerable people. For his leadership at Street Health, a non-profit agency dedicated to improving the health of homeless and under-housed people, he received the Bhayana Family Foundation Award last year.

Adongo says the award not only brought welcome recognition for his work, it also strengthened his connection to a community of like-minded people. “It was a great experience for us to realize that all the little things we do actually matter,” he adds.

Raksha Bhayana, principal of Bhayana Management, co-founded the Bhayana Family Foundation, which gives out awards to front-line staff selected from a network of United Way-funded agencies such as Street Health.

She often receives similar feedback from award winners. “Recipients have often said that the reward acted ‘as a reset button, an inspiration to continue to push forward,’” she says. “The work of front-line workers is often undervalued, and we have to raise awareness of the tremendous social and economic impact of the nonprofit sector on Canadian society. A hidden powerhouse of the economy, the sector employs two million people and contributed 8.1 per cent of the GDP in 2010.”

In a recent presentation to the Canadian Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector, the Bhayana Family Foundation recommended that there be a national day of recognition of these heroes. The foundation is also producing a national video series on award winners in partnership with United Ways and Charity Village.

Like Adongo, Bhayana was born outside of Canada and has personal experiences in front-line work. “When I came to Toronto, my first job was as a front-line therapist at a children’s mental health centre. There, I experienced an incessant demand on my mind and soul from the people who came with their complex problems,” she explains. “We often didn’t have a lot of resources and had to rely on our creativity and imagination to make things happen.”

Bhayana, who has a master’s degree in social work and an MBA, then moved to the business world but retained an appreciation for the extraordinary efforts of front-line staff. “People turn to them when they can’t do it alone anymore,” she says. “The sector will always be unique. Few are involved to maximize profits, improve share prices or earn as much as they can. They simply provide a value beyond money.”

For the last decade, the Bhayana Family Foundation has partnered with several United Ways across the country to administer awards that shine a light on local heroes, many new Canadians among them.

Adongo believes that refugees and immigrants typically bring a strong desire to make a contribution to their new communities. “You feel that you are getting an opportunity to make a home in Canada,” he says. “And you’re not afraid of hard work to build that new life.”

Adongo, who was born in Kenya, arrived in Canada in 1988. He came from Tanzania, where he had faced persecution, through the intervention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

On landing, he was offered social assistance. “I was horrified that I would line up to get money for food,” says Adongo, who was educated as a teacher and accountant. “I urgently wanted to find work and was lucky to get a job within a couple of weeks.”

Adongo started working for a small business but was soon drawn to social work and joined Across Boundaries, a non-profit organization that offers support and services for people with mental health challenges. Then, in 1997, Adongo took a position as an outreach worker at Street Health. “At the time, a lot of people came from mental health institutions and hospitals into the community, and they were not getting the housing and the care they needed. Many ended up in the streets and in shelters,” he says.

Adongo soon realized that connecting people whose lives are characterized by extreme poverty, chronic unemployment and housing insecurity with services was not enough. Results improve when more permanent connections can be established, he says. “When people are out on the street, they may end up in emergency a couple times a week. But by working with our clients, we reduce the number of their visits to emergency. It makes a huge difference.”

Street Health provides a range of services, from nursing, mental health support and case management to a secure mail service and identification storage, he says. “People on the street may lose their ID so we keep it safe, and they can come and get it when they need to go to the bank or the hospital,” he explains.

And when people come to Street Health with issues that are outside the organization’s scope, they are referred to a place where they can receive help, says Adongo. “We don’t say, ‘I can’t help you’ without adding ‘I’ll refer you to someone who can.’”

Both Adongo and Bhayana are examples of newcomers who have made tremendous contributions to Canadian communities and society, and they both say they consider themselves fortunate.

“We welcome the opportunity to give back. My family and I have gained much both professionally and personally by being able to live and work in Canada,” says Bhayana.

Adongo adds, “And working with people who face so many challenges has been part of my own personal healing.”

Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.