Local service for the deaf among ‘champions’ named by city

The City of Toronto has presented 25 community organizations with special awards for the vital service they provided during the pandemic to Torontonians, many of whom were emotionally upended and needed help to fathom what was going on.

The Toronto Community Champion Award recognizes these organizations for “the collective commitment and unwavering determination of communities to support each other through some of the most challenging times in Toronto’s history,” a city statement says.

Twenty-two other organizations received honourable mention for their efforts. In all, 47 groups from across the city have been named and recognized.

Kelly MacKenzie, executive director of Silent Voice Canada based at 60 St. Clair Ave. E., said her organization was overwhelmed to receive the Toronto Community Champion Award for its work providing services to the deaf during the pandemic.

“We really rose to the occasion and I feel really great about how the community would recognize that,” she said.

MacKenzie said the barriers to information that deaf people face have never been as high as when the pandemic hit.

“The barriers were huge. People didn’t know what was going on and children and youth who are deaf and didn’t have communication at home didn’t know that,” MacKenzie said.

Only 40 per cent of families with a deaf member know sign language, she said. That meant deaf members in 60 per cent of families had no meaningful communication to understand what was happening in the world.

Families reached out to Silent Voice which set up a COVID website and posted more than 200 videos using American Sign Language, covering everything from government announcements regarding financial support to what services might still be available.

“The isolation (deaf people felt) … I couldn’t even quantify it,” said MacKenzie. “We gave out refurbished computers and webcams to families that didn’t have them.”

Staff felt burnt-out too

Ninety per cent of Silent Voice staff are deaf, including programs directors and those on the front line. They, too, felt the pandemic punch, MacKenzie said.

“Like other not-for-profits, and probably everybody, people experienced burnout. We were working 24/7 trying to make sure that everybody was engaged and aware of what was going on.”

MacKenzie found herself trying to bolster spirits. “I had to manage staff burnout and mental health wellness just so people could continue to work,” she said. “I said your challenges are my challenges.”

Today, on the downside of COVID, Silent Voice is functioning normally again. “We officially opened for everything Jan. 1, 2023,” MacKenzie said.