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Government's pandemic funding not cutting it, says Ausome Ottawa

“We are going to be about $125,000 short of our budget this year I believe and that is optimistic,” says the charity's executive director.
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Ausome Ottawa provides a community for children with autism and their families through sport and recreational programs. (Photo/ Provided by Ausome Ottawa)

Ausome Ottawa is facing deep cuts to both its workforce and services as it continues to provide what programs it can, virtually.

Liisa Vexler launched the organization, which brings autistic kids and their families together through sport and recreational programs, with her husband in 2016.

It's now one of many community-based organizations being confronted with difficult financial decisions as a result of the current COVID-19 landscape.

Although cuts to the Ontario Autism Program that were initially announced last year have been walked-back by the provincial government, receiving adequate funding remains a problem for Ausome Ottawa.

“[It’s] not enough. We are going to be about $125,000 short of our budget this year I believe and that is optimistic,” said Vexler, executive director.

Ausome also receives support through sponsorships, primarily from small Ottawa businesses. They have been understandably conservative in their contributions recently as every business has had to rethink financial commitments during COVID.

Vexler says that Ausome had had to lay-off their program staff, who conducted their in-person programs, prior to the shutdown. They have also cut down full-time staff hours.

The executive director explains she's been forced to scrape every corner for financial support and hope that the government makes funding more available for charitable organizations like them. She believes their services are crucial to a segment of the population and have only become more important in a time when community engagement is tough to come by during quarantine.

“Our families [of children with autism] are always socially isolated because they have a hard time coming out into the community," says Vexler. "At this time, it is even more so. All their lifelines, all these little things they did have, have been cut. For them, our programs are even more necessary than ever.”

The organization is looking to go back to smaller, in-person programming sometime in July according to Vexler but has been staying involved with their community through the development of virtual services.

Ausome had never done virtual programming before but has found the bright side in the past few months with its ability to shift its services online.

Looking on the positive side, Vexler says transportation to in-person programs had been an ongoing issue for busy families and it's not an obstacle with virtual programs. They plan on keeping virtual services going forward as it gives families the easiest option to take part. It is also of very little cost to run for Ausome.

“This is the way we can break down that barrier a little bit,” said Vexler.

Ausome cancelled their in-person programs even before the City of Ottawa officially shutdown public sports facilities, preemptively starting their transition to virtual services. They began with shooting and posting five-to-10-minute activity videos. They were made so that kids could follow in any space with at-home objects such as stationing an obstacle course using toilet paper rolls as cones. They now have a library of 40 activity videos on YouTube and the Ausome website. All-in-all, the videos have been seen roughly 1,200 times.

From there, they shifted to weekly live programs hosted on the Zoom video conferencing platform featuring different types of fitness activities as well as a ‘ZOOM-Ba’ drop-in program for virtual dance-based exercise.

Ausome was averaging about 90 kids per week attending their programs under normal circumstances. Live virtual programs have dropped that number to an average of between 12 and 20 children per week.

unnamed (2)Weekly in-person programs have been transitioned to Zoom fitness classes for Ausome Ottawa's kids. (Photo/ Provided by Ausome Ottawa)

While varying in the physical activities they focus on, positivity and encouragement are pillars of all Ausome programs.

“One of the big things with supporting children and youth with autism – and even adults with autism – is making sure to offer a lot of positive reinforcement and motivation,” said Vexler.

The virtual offerings have been helpful but there remain problems keeping kids engaged through a screen. As has uplifting them with their usual encouraging actions like high fives and hugs that helps involve kids in the activities.

“There are a lot of kids who [a virtual class] just really doesn’t work for. Our kids all have different sensory challenges and there are some that need a lot of sensory input.”

While funding will remain a long-term issue, Ausome has launched a couple different social media initiatives in the meantime, combining physical activity and fundraising -- including its '3-2-1 Ausome Challenge.'

It involves tagging three friends/family members on social media, walking or running two kilometres, and making a donation to Ausome Ottawa. The initial goal for the ‘3-2-1 Ausome Challenge’ is to raise $5,000.

“We will keep trucking and he will make it work, because we always do,” said Vexler.

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