Sandy Hill’s COVID-19 response team

Neighbours help neighbours

Kathy Moyer

When the Sandy Hill Community Response Team launched its “friendly neighbours” support service on 27 March, it was against the backdrop of newly unfolding self-isolation restrictions and looming threats of enforced lock-downs, potential food scarcity, and overstretched health care services. Now, a few months in, with the talk of “road maps” and phased re-opening filling the news, their approach appears to have reaped benefits.

Nancy Johnson, one of the first women to request support, has lived in Sandy Hill for 15 years. Nancy made contact with the team after her friend saw a poster in her apartment building. Soon, she was matched with two volunteers for groceries and prescription pick-ups.

Nancy recalls that “It was hard to know what situation you were facing at first when you were being told to stay at home. It’s a learning process for everybody and I didn’t feel good about going into a grocery store. Having somebody being able to deliver groceries right to my door made me feel much more secure.”

While the team was initially inundated with a flurry of diverse concerns (from pandemic-specific questions to inquiries from neighbours seeking to navigate the myriad of government initiatives), their main focus has been to use a “buddy” system to match volunteers with more than 30 individuals requesting support. The pairs then work together to create a solution to fit their specific situation—and hopefully create a friendship and sense of community as a result.

In Nancy’s case, Klaus, a volunteer, only picked up her groceries for a short time before she decided she was comfortable organizing curbside pick-up herself. Other grocery services are ongoing. Sandy Hill resident Deborah Cowley, 83, receives a weekly delivery from volunteer Mary Clark. “Mary usually calls me on Monday and [I] send her a list. She’s wonderful. She obviously knows what I like and we like the same things—like chocolate chip cookies,” Deborah says.

For Mary, the call for volunteers came at a good time: “My husband and I had been looking for some different volunteer opportunities [and] I liked the idea of helping someone nearby. It’s enriching for me, too, because I get to know someone in the neighbourhood [and] it’s interesting to meet someone outside your circle. It’s almost like having a penpal because we’re exchanging emails here and there.”

Deborah was “delighted” when Mary called because it meant she got to know someone new in her neighbourhood—although it does feel a little unusual, she adds. “Right now [Mary] just parks in the laneway and we have a short chat in the morning. I look forward to knowing her better when I can invite her in for dinner.”

About 75 volunteers have responded to the team’s initial call to action. France Girard initially offered to help because she lives on her own and her work, which depends on face-to-face contact, was disrupted. So, when organizers asked if she needed any assistance, France “re-imagined” her experience with an after-school reading club and decided to request a volunteer reader. France was paired with Clara, a high school student, who chose a book having enjoyed the author’s previous novels. They soon found the story was set during the Black Plague. Undaunted, they continued, and enjoy chatting on the phone for about an hour twice a week—reading, discussing the themes, and catching up with how each are doing. They are committed to finishing the story, although it may take a bit longer as current restrictions are eased.

The Sandy Hill Community Response Team hotline remains open with the group of 10 core members responding to any new requests. That includes a number of members of Action Sandy Hill (ASH), the local neighbourhood association.

The team is also reviewing next steps, including the feasibility of expanding the services offered and asking what comes next—during the pandemic recovery and after. They would love to hear your thoughts about whether there’s value in continuing this “buddy system” response team into the future. You can share your opinion by emailing

Deborah, for one, hopes “that when this is over someone will have the initiative to turn this volunteer group into an ongoing thing.” There are several successful examples of neighbourhood volunteer groups both in Ottawa and around the world, including Washington, D.C. and Tokyo, Japan. Watch this space!