How to mobilize 100 volunteers during a holiday ice storm

“I thought, someone has to do something!
And then I realized that the someone was me.”

- Lisa Levin

At the height of the December 2013 ice storm Lisa Levin was in lisa-croppedcharge of the north Toronto Circle of Care office, covering for staff who were on Christmas holidays. Her regular job is VP of Community Relations and Communications. She knew that conditions outside were treacherous—so when the United Jewish Appeal offered help she immediately asked for salt. Circle of Care is responsible for 8,600 vulnerable seniors and its meals and transportation teams were slipping and sliding on ice as they continued to do their jobs. The city was out of salt, but Lisa knew that UJA had two campuses and must have stockpiles. They did, and so the first wave of collaborative community response was launched.
But the power was failing—all over the city—and Lisa’s seniors, especially those who live in high rise buildings, had bigger problems than salt. When the power goes out in an apartment building folk who live above the eighth floor stop getting water.  “The first thing I thought when I found out was, oh my goodness, someone’s got to do something about this,” says Lisa. “And then I realized there was no ‘someone.’ Because the city didn’t seem to have the capacity to respond properly, and it was Christmas time.” Lisa knew that she was the someone who had to act.

The Plan

Lisa needed three things—fast: water, food and people. UJA said they’d find the people and sent an e-blast to their members. In very short order they’d lined up 100 people ready to give up their holidays. Now that Lisa had the resources she needed a concerted plan. She’d already called her City Councillor, James Pasternak, and they’d agreed that seniors living in Toronto Community Housing Towers would be cared for by TCH staff who were already in place.
But seniors living in private buildings in the Westminster Branson area—many of them vulnerable and isolated newcomers—were at greatest risk, and that was where Lisa’s crew targeted their efforts.  Westminster Branson has the highest percentage of seniors in the City – many of whom  are low income and newcomers.  She asked all the new volunteers to bring their own flashlights. Then she and 2 Circle of Care drivers went shopping with the Circle of Care credit card. They couldn’t convince anyone to give them a discount so they bought bottled water and energy bars in bulk at COSTCO.
UJA and Circle of Care staff and volunteers spent the next five hours walking up endless flights of stairs and knocking on doors. They gave the essential supplies to anyone who needed them, answered questions and helped with special requests. Seniors who could get down the stairs were transported to their destinations by Circle of Care vans. But there was one very serious problem that they couldn’t deal with: those seniors who were anxious to leave their apartments but needed help to get down the stairs. The City’s emergency services said they couldn’t help. Untrained volunteers, even if they had special equipment, couldn’t be responsible for carrying people down dark flights of stairs. Lisa was stumped. And then the power came back on.

Preparing for the next weather emergency

Lisa didn’t let things go back to normal when the ice was gone. She and Councillor Pasternak organized a conference call and invited all of the people they’d worked with during the storm, as well as others they’d been introduced to during and after the crisis. They formed a Ward 10 Emergency Round Table and they’re preparing for the next extreme weather event. One of the members, Maureen Simpson, has already started. She’s distributing the City’s Emergency Preparedness booklets to her community.

Lisa has stockpiled flashlights, salt and water. She has a direct line to the Jewish Ambulance service which has trained volunteers with special chairs for carrying people with compromised mobility. She is working with Beth Emeth Synagogue that has a generator.  Most importantly, Lisa now has a list of about 20 contacts who she can call as soon as the next crisis hits and she carries a hard copy of it with her at all times. Colleagues at Circle of Care have copies of the list in case Lisa’s away when the next event happens.

Last word

For most people, the power came back after a few days. It may be out for much longer next time. And it could happen during a summer heat wave—even more deadly than extreme cold. Lisa wants the city to be proactive; ready to call a state of emergency so that people who are trapped in high rises—vulnerable seniors, disabled, mentally ill and others—can be quickly and safely evacuated.