Exploring a Community Youth Organization’s Rapid Response to the Pandemic

Posted on June 4, 2020
By Pamela Teitelbaum

Head and HandsFounded in 1970, Head & Hands is a community health organization servicing Montreal’s west end community youth. It began with a mission to provide medical, legal and social services to Montreal’s youth and has since grown into a landmark community organization providing “services that include free weekly drop-in medical clinics, legal information and consultations, counselling, a young parents’ program, youth drop-in, tutoring, street workers, and the Sense Project peer-based sex ed in high schools.”

When I was younger Head & Hands was considered a safe haven - a place where young people felt comfortable and secure to seek medical attention, counselling and other services. Growing up as a young person in Montreal, when family wasn’t always so stable or open-minded, it was a place offering safe advice and free supplies, like menstrual products or birth control. A ‘no questions asked' type of place, just the kind young people sometimes need.

Today, Head & Hands continues to create an accessible, inclusive, non-judgmental and holistic environment. It’s targeted community outreach is geared towards preventative measures and their youth programming facilitates self-empowerment and social change based on the youth experience, more specifically their needs within the community they live and society in general.

When the pandemic started unfolding, the staff at Head & Hands were paying attention. Their health team anticipated a shortage of personal protection equipment, particularly amongst frontline organizations and the public that they serve, given that hospitals were already struggling to access PPE. The organization realized that their typical programming was being impacted and put on hold, and that they had the capacity to offer something of immediate value to the local community. When the pandemic was declared they were able to respond.

Upon reflection, Head & Hands’ rapid response was based on a few key factors, including trust, longstanding relationships and experience within the community, and a strong knowledge of community needs. These important factors established Head & Hands in a well-situating position to do something meaningful and useful to support the community and address immediate needs.

As a frontline organization Head & Hands was able to act as a key connector in the community and conduct a rapid needs assessment.  The steps they took included a series of activities based in observational assessment. From this, it became clear that PPEs were going to be a major barrier of the pandemic for community organizations.  First, they made the decision to start acquiring sanitation materials, hand sanitizer and other equipment in order to fill that gap. As an independently run clinic and Street Work program, they started acquiring hand sanitizer and disinfectants before building the local partnerships around this initiative. The positive response from the community in receiving this products where they may not have been able to access them otherwise due to cost and accessibility led Head & Hands to a second important step as they observed an opportunity to fill a gap by deepening and scaling this initiative through the discussion with local health groups, such as, the Association Québécoise des Infirmières et Infirmiers (AQII), Protection Collective, and Donnez la protection.

This then expanded even further by turning to social media to reach out to the community and their networks, including mutual aid groups on Facebook and conversations with the local networks. Head and Hands quickly observed that there was an absence of hand-washing stations in critical areas in the city, and there was a lack of available personal protective equipment (PPE).

Head and Hands PPEAs a result of their quick response, Head & Hands was able to redirect a portion of their Street Work program resources to a new initiative they launched called the Head & Hands PPE Distribution Project. Under the Head & Hands Street Work program the organization typically aims to meet and support youth, vulnerable populations, and/or drug users in the CDN-NDG borough of Montreal. Street Work provides materials, accompaniments, and one-on-one mental health support. This program works closely with the organization’s medical clinic team on keeping up-to-date with the health and social needs of use in Montréal.

In discussions with Head & Hands staff about how they quickly transitioned their services to respond to the pandemic, and in trying to get an understanding of the overall reactions and value this initiative is having in the community it became clear that they moved in the necessary direction to rapidly respond to shifting community needs:

Who got involved in the PPE Distribution Project?

At the beginning as they awaited delivery of bulk orders of PPE, they contacted local small businesses or restaurants in the surrounding neighbourhoods as well as with and independent workers like tattoo artists to solicit donations and determine needs. As emergency funds became available, they created a form that local community members from small businesses can now complete to place orders for PPE.

Who in the community is benefitting from this initiative?

Supplies have been distributed to shelters, community centres, street work organizations, homeless or under-housed populations and other groups who have been made particularly vulnerable by systemic barriers and discrimination.

How was it received?

At first some were skeptical of this response, particularly those who had a lack of information or had not put in their own guidelines around a COVID-19 response.  But as education around the scale of the pandemic became more accessible, a growing number of partners reached out, and the interest is still climbing.

What gap did it fill?

Apart from filling the gap in PPE itself, this project has allowed frontline workers to be able to focus their time and energy on their work rather than having to source materials, or think about how to protect themselves. For those not working in the sector, Head & Hands started distributing small COVID Kits, containing soap, hand sanitizer, gloves, a mask, and educational materials.

What has been the overall response from the community?

Other frontline community organizations are now asking Head & Hands to support them in getting the proper materials to their staff, volunteers, and members.  In particular, organizations that initially requested bulk orders of PPE were able to re-distribute them in a targeted way, that really extended the reach of Head & Hands’ project.

At the individual level, people in the community that might not have access to the necessary hygiene materials are really happy to receive the COVID Kits. Prior to receiving them, those living in higher risk situations, such as homelessness or under-housed individuals were expressing a feeling of being left aside and not prioritized in the response conversation, “PPEs are mainly for folks who could afford them”. As a result of the COVID Kits distribution, they were expressing a feeling of being protected, and cared for by the community. 

What are some observations being made by the Head & Hands staff and volunteers?

The volunteers who helped to source materials, coordinate the initial response, and assemble the COVID  Kits felt empowered; they are able to tangibly help their communities, while minimizing the risk to themselves and others. Some volunteers packaged COVID Kits from home, which allowed them to be involved while at a safe distance from others.

For the staff at Head & Hands, those in office and those at home, being able to see the impact of this project has reinforced their sense of confidence and pride in the agility of their organization. As expressed by one of the Head & Hands staff “I think this could be a great example of how rapid assessment can be applied in a simple way that can support the community in a significant way”.


With permission and support from Andrea Clarke (Executive Director) and Richenda Grazette of Head & Hands.


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Youth, Blog, Community Change, Pamela Teitelbaum, COVID-19

Pamela Teitelbaum

By Pamela Teitelbaum

Pamela is passionate about supporting and facilitating an interplay of learning and evaluation that creates transformative experiences aimed at developing healthy, equitable, gender-responsive and rights-based communities.

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