Workplace Campaign Coordinator, United Way Waterloo Region Communities
Heather McLarnon, 35, is an Ontario Works Caseworker for the Region of Waterloo. She recently finished a four-month secondment as a Workplace Campaign Coordinator with United Way.
“I’ve worked in social services for 10 years with people who are directly experiencing poverty. I didn’t quite realize then but I know now that I was referring clients every day to services funded by United Way.“I had always assumed a lot of the funding came from the government. I didn’t really take a moment to think about it further. But once I started researching United Way, I thought ‘Wow, these things are so important and relevant to the clients I work with. [Being a sponsored employee] was a way for me to support that.
“What United Way offers is hope and support. One story really sticks out. I was working with a woman who had terrible anxiety. She decided to get her kids involved at one of the United Way-funded community centres. While she was there, she got comfortable with the people who worked there. Eventually she stared volunteering there. After a while she felt a real connection, and then she felt ready to look for work. She got a part-time job. Then she got a full-time job.
“It just shows that having any kind of connection helps people move forward to whatever their next steps are. People are experiencing more complex issues than ever before, so it’s never going to be a one-stop shop to helping people reach their full potential. United Way does a really job good job of bringing a network of services together to get people better connected so they can move forward.
“As a case worker I’m tied to a desk. I’d refer clients but I never really knew what it was like to go to the food bank, for example. Where is it? Where’s the parking? I can now say to people, ‘When you go there, this is what it’s like and this is what they do.’
“Our role means we have to be experts about community resources now because we don’t always have the answer to what our clients need. We really have to be savvy. We try to help people access and navigate community resources — that’s a huge part of the job.
“My plan is to go back to the Region and share what I’ve learned about the value of United Way. It’s been so wonderful in lots of ways. It’s been great professional development in terms of becoming more comfortable with public speaking and being put into situations that are different, learning to deal with a network of different people on a regular basis. It’s a really good win-win for anyone in this program. They take away a lot and they give a lot.”