The pandemic's impact has been negative for most, but for 20-year-old Newmarket resident Ella Eum, it provided an invaluable experience, the result of which has shaped her mindset and career goals.
Eum is a volunteer at Newmarket-based Shine Through the Rain Foundation, a charitable organization that provides guidance, support, and monetary assistance to individuals who have been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
She began working there in May 2020, shortly after the pandemic hit.
What started out as a summer experience turned out to be a lesson in personal growth for Eum.
"It definitely taught me to look outside myself and to stop thinking just about me as an individual."
Eum's responsibilities included listening to voicemails and reading emails left by both social workers and patients looking to determine their eligibility for assistance.
In hearing patients trying to explain their circumstances, she could tell, said Eum, they just wanted "someone to hear them out."
When the foundation transitioned to an online process for applications the following spring, Eum was given the added responsibilities of reviewing and approving applications and helping social workers and patients navigate the new online application system.
One of the most devastating effects of the pandemic, she said, was hearing stories from "heartbroken" individuals who wanted to help the loved ones they weren't able to visit in hospital.
"That was definitely heartbreaking to hear because not only are their really close ones sick and with illness, but they couldn't see them either. And that was kind of like a desperate call coming to me."
The circumstance that led to Eum's involvement with the foundation was strictly a consequence of the pandemic but working there taught her to have "compassion and understanding" and she wouldn't change that for anything.
"Non-profit, charities and helping patients with issues was not something that I ever looked toward but it was a silver lining that I did find this place because I was never looking toward this field of work. I think without the pandemic and trying to look as hard, I wouldn't have found this place."
When she entered university in 2019, Eum planned to secure a volunteer or internship position during summer breaks but when the pandemic hit and businesses began to close she worried she wouldn't find anything.
"I was really scared that I was going to be sent home from school with no job opportunities, no internship opportunities, no volunteer opportunities because nobody was really looking and we were all kind of just sent home not knowing what to do for the summer. And that was kind of scary because that was my first year of university and I didn't really know what to expect."
Eum stumbled across the foundation's post looking for volunteers. With just two permanent staff members, the foundation's office remained open throughout the pandemic, something for which Eum said she was glad.
"In a time of social distancing and not being able to see people, it was really nice to come into a physical office and talk to at least one other person outside of my family."
Shine Through the Rain is based in Newmarket but its reach is national. It's funded through grants, donations and fundraising.
The amount of individuals served by the foundation varies from month to month, according to Laurie Docimo, sponsorships and grants.
"This year we've helped well over 1,000. We also help across Canada, however because we're local in Newmarket and we just have the one office, most of the people we help are in the area."
The foundation's social programs include a pediatric Christmas party, a camp scholarship that sends children under 18 to camp, and Rainy Day Gifts, a hand-packed gift bundle to provide comfort to a child struggling with illness.
The Rainy Day Fund is a monthly financial program to assist those dealing with income loss or the financially damaging increase in expenses due to illness.
The program provides emergency payments directly to utility companies and landlords for overdue bills and rent and helps with grocery and transportation costs.
Expenses can include medication taken outside of hospital — that is not covered by OHIP — to hospital parking or travel associated with a hospital outside a patient's municipality.
"What most people don't realize or they don't stop to think about, and patients tend to be embarrassed to talk about their financial situation, but often people are too sick to work. Or if it's their child, at least one parent takes time off work to be with them," said Docimo. "Whether it's survivable or terminal, they're all impacted and we try to help as much as we can."
Eum plans to return to the foundation this summer and is grateful, she said, to work in an office where she has the opportunity to learn from the staff and get one-on-one time with them. She's equally grateful to learn from the people who share their stories with her.
"It really taught me to be empathetic and understanding of different situations and needs. Most of us can say that you're really privileged to kind of not be in these people's shoes, but it was really cool to try and understand what they're going through and read their stories and a lot of them just needed somebody to do that and I was really grateful that I was that person."
Eum is in her third year at Western University, where she is studying political science and philosophy. Since working at Shine Through the Rain Foundation, her perspective has been changed, she said.
She has taken a deeper look at federal and provincial policy with regards to health and brings this new perspective to class discussions.
Eum plans to pursue a law degree but because of her experience with the foundation she's decided to turn her attention toward advocacy work, something she said she never would have considered before.
"I don't think I had that perspective beforehand. I don't think if it was for Shine Through the Rain I would have the same thought-process that I would want to go into advocacy but I think after volunteering and after working there I definitely want to incorporate that into life."