This fall, our team took a visit to March of Dimes Canada headquarters in order to learn more about the Hi, Tech! Program – a rapid community mobilization response to the pandemic which continues to change the shape of their work. From virtual peer support groups to the continued emphasis on both online and in-person access, the team at March of Dimes Canada has found innovative ways to keep their communities connected, both locally and nationally.
March of Dimes Canada has been providing support to Canadians with disabilities for over 70-years. Beginning with the Polio outbreak of the 1950s, the charity has grown to encompass a wide range of services including support groups, educational workshops, mobility, and skill building for different communities and their needs. It is their vision to create “an inclusive, barrier-free society for people with disabilities.”
With the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, the organization was forced to re-evaluate their offerings. While some of their services were able to continue through the periods of lockdown, their community-based programs were impacted by the inability to connect in-person. When it became clear that the lockdown was going to last more than two weeks, their team jumped into action to find a solution to the ever-growing isolation.
This led to a creative first-step in figuring out people’s technology needs: a virtual dance party. This was an easy, low-pressure way to get clients online. Not a program, it was a simple option for encouraging participants to try out the technology and become familiar with it. Many people joined; however, in the number who didn’t, the team at March of Dimes Canada could identify those who might need an extra hand.
“We had about 50 people join us for a groovy time. We had the attendees submit their requests so they could jam out to their favourite tunes […] We sang, we danced and we partied until we couldn’t anymore. The highlight of the party was that nobody wanted the party to end.” (Update from the organizing team at March of Dimes Canada following the March 27, 2020 Virtual Dance Party)
From the start, one-on-one technology support was a priority, since not only were their programs going to go online but so were many aspects of society. Additionally, for many people within higher-risk medical communities, in-person gathering was just not an option. Considering all of these factors, they launched a pilot program in late 2020 which saw 100 matches made to provide one-on-one tech support to select communities. When the opportunity for further emergency response programming through the Healthy Communities Initiative came along, the Hi, Tech! program was expanded from its pilot stage to reach more people nationally!
By helping participants learn how to use platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft (MS) Teams, Skype, Facebook, and others, especially through the lens of accessibility training, Hi, Tech! has supported March of Dimes Canada’s work toward barrier-free access for all. Moreover, it has created opportunities for community expansion and innovative partnerships.
Nadia Troisi, National Manager, Community Programs & Professional Practice, reflected on some of these changes when we got the chance to chat. Of the move to get participants online, she mentioned that not only was the reach of the March of Dimes Canada expanded at the national level, but these connections were having a tangible impact on the lives of participants. For example, she shared a story about two young people who had gone through similar experiences and who were able to connect through virtual programming despite their geography. They stayed in contact outside of programming and have built a friendship through virtual space.
The Hi, Tech! program has continued to evolve while facilitating new collaborations and the opportunity to look at technology access from a different angle. Addressing the issue of inequitable tech distribution, the Tech-for-Impact Fund and Tech-for-Good programs continue the work of keeping the community for people living with a disability connected. As it was an emergency response to the pandemic, the Hi, Tech! program has become less in-demand with time. However the organisation has maintained its innovative and relevant responses to combatting COVID-19 isolation and supporting community needs. For March of Dimes Canada, the virtual world is now as much a part of their work as the in-person one.
The March of Dimes Canada Headquarters located in the leaside neighbourhood of toronto. Photograph by naomi wolfe, 2022.
Moving into the future, Nadia states that both virtual and in-person programming are ongoing priorities. Navigating the balance between these platforms is just one of the questions that the team is facing as they continue to develop their community of COVID-19 supports. She also wonders at the future of the program – while the demand for Hi, Tech! has decreased, it remains an integral part of their tech support options. Can it be transformed and sustained in a way that blends with evolving online needs? The answer, she says, lies in the work of their amazing volunteers whose ongoing learning and commitment has been foundational to building-out the virtual space.
“We jumped into virtual programming and it’s gone surprisingly smoothly. This is a testament to our team and to the clients who continue to recognise the importance of our communities staying connected.” (Nadia Troisi, November 2022)
The success of Hi, Tech! and its place in the growing online network of March of Dimes Canada is made possible by collaboration at all levels. This is something that Nadia mentions as a positive team outcome from the virtual move. “It’s been really impressive to see our team adjust so much,” she states. “We jumped into virtual programming and it’s gone surprisingly smoothly. This is a testament to our team and to the clients who continue to recognise the importance of our communities staying connected.”
To learn more about March of Dimes Canada, visit their website here: