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University student-run program still helping seniors with groceries nearly a year later

“I think we were really filling a gap within our community in terms of accessing a service that is really essential for anyone," says Bag Half Full volunteer Lindsey Symons.

Nearly a year since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Ottawa, a life-changing service to help the city’s senior population is still running and in high demand. 

Samantha Buchanan, who is currently in her second year of medicine at the University of Ottawa, was in search of a way to give back to her community when she came across Bag Half Full -  a free grocery delivery service, created by university medical students in Edmonton.

She knew this was something that was needed in Ottawa.

“I noticed a bunch of people, particularly elderly [people] who looked scared while grocery shopping,” Buchanan explains, looking back on 2020. “They didn’t want to go close to people who were wearing their masks and I realized that they really shouldn't be out there grocery shopping because they’re at a very high risk.”

She then reached out to Lindsey Symons, her friend, also a second-year uOttawa medical student, and by April 2020, Bag Half Full hit the ground running in almost every Ottawa neighbourhood.

Older residents who are either immunocompromised or are unable to shop for groceries independently have been contacting Bag Half Full by phone request or by filling out an online form application since last April. And the organization's volunteers have been busy delivering groceries or prescription meds to their homes.

Symons says it's been an essential time to give back to the community. 

“I think we were really filling a gap within our community in terms of accessing a service that is really essential for anyone, and I think it was really, personally gratifying to see just how grateful all of the community members were,” Symons says. 

Since April of 2020, Bag Half Full has completed 940 orders in Ottawa, and has raised at least $5,400. Monisha Kabir, who has been managing the external operations for the Ottawa location since July 2020, says the response was so overwhelming in the very beginning, that they needed all the help they could find. 

“Within the first two weeks of them operating, they were just operating with medical students, they noticed that the demand really did increase,” Kabir says. “They ended up having to expand to include university students and working professionals as volunteers.”

Bag Half Full has other locations in Prescott-Russell, the Greater Toronto Area, Hamilton and Calgary.

Although the organization has proved to be an essential service in Ottawa, especially in the middle of the pandemic, it did find that many older people in Ottawa lacked reliable Internet access or even phone services.

“We've just communicated with them via email because it seems like it's one or the other, either that they don't have a phone or they don't have a reliable communication method via email,” explains Kabir. She adds that if a client doesn't have phone or Internet, a neighbour can place an order for them. 

At the time, it was also eye-opening for Kabir that there are were not as many services to assist the older population in Ottawa.

One of the key reasons that people are currently in need of this service, according to Kabir, is that is now more difficult for older people to get around the city in the winter. Kabir says that although clients have requested that this service should continue beyond the pandemic, it is all dependent on the number of volunteers and external funding.

Regardless, the team is continuously inspired by the volunteers’ dedication to effortlessly lend a hand. Symons says that this experience couldn’t be more gratifying.

“I think the best part is, for me is really been seeing how students and community members can really come together quickly to support members of our community,” says Symons. “I'm really proud of what our awesome big team has accomplished over the last -- almost year now.” 

Kabir, who currently works as a research coordinator at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institute and completing her Masters in Science and Health Systems at the University of Ottawa, says that despite being a part of this initiative during this stressful time, it’s the impact that counts. 

“It’s a busy time, but you know, it's very fulfilling, because it really does feel like you're making a difference and that you're genuinely helping people that really do need that help,” says Kabir.“I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to do this with and I'm very thankful for the medical students that actually set this up.” 

Kabir also says volunteers are always needed.

Bag Half Full currently has a goal of $6,500 which is available through their GoFundMe Page.

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