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SLAA seniors benefit from $25,000 federal grant

By  | 21 May 2020 at 01:23 | 1442 views

Saturday 16 May 2020 was a special day for elderly members of the Sierra Leone Association of Alberta (SLAA). It marked the start of an exercise in which they each received gifts of basic food items and hygiene products. This gesture could not have come at a better time for them, with the COVID-19 pandemic.

People who are in the latter years of middle-age, or older, are considered ‘seniors’ in Canada. Their peers in SLAA received the gifts as beneficiaries of a federal grant scheme called NHSP (New Horizons for Seniors Program). The NHSP grant, awarded to SLAA earlier this year, is for $25,000. The delivery of the hampers is just one element of a composite project conceived and designed by SLAA within the NHSP framework.

In applying for the grant, SLAA had proposed an integrated venture. It comprises activities designed to address cognitive/mental, physical, and psychosocial challenges faced by its elderly members The outline shows plans to provide traditional Sierra Leonean meals in communal settings; cognitive activities like basic computer skills training; leisure activities like conducted tours of historic sites, playing of board games, traditional story-telling, and comedy; and health-promoting group activities like outdoor strolls and mall walks. The project also has a spiritual component, with group prayer/worship meetings slated. The goal is to reduce feelings of boredom, loneliness, and isolation among seniors. The strategy is to apply schemes which lift their spirits; encourage healthy lifestyles, and generally make them feel they belong to a caring community. The SLAA plan was on track until COVID-19 snuck in and changed everything.

Consequently, SLAA has had to adjust the mode of implementation, while keeping the basic concept intact. Food items like brown rice, white rice, cooking oil, palm oil, and fresh onions were packaged with hygiene products like soap, rolls of paper towels, hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes, rolls of toilet paper, and toothpaste. This assortment constituted the hampers which were courteously presented to beneficiaries at their respective front doorsteps.

On a sentimental note, each senior received a special card bearing compliments and caring words from SLAA president Dr. Abu Conteh. “We just want to show our seniors that we really care about them, in our words and in our deeds,” Dr. Conteh explained. Artist Gibril Bangura provided the greetings cards, from his original collection.

The NHSP is administered by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). SLAA sought the grant, late in 2019. ESDC approved the application in February this year, well before COVID-19 reached Alberta.

By the time ESDC mailed the cheque, the virus had taken hold here. The pandemic brought overwhelming restrictions on everyday life; with SLAA caught in the middle of its NHSP planning and other operations. The association consulted ESDC regarding the restrictions and subsequently got permission to adjust pertinent aspects of the NHSP, to suit prevailing conditions. The home delivery of food/hygiene hampers to seniors is one such adjustment. The initial plan had been to host an exclusive lunch or dinner, with a traditional Sierra Leonean/West African menu. The strategy was to leverage nostalgia by asking the seniors to name their preferred dishes. Then, SLAA would have had its expert volunteers prepare and serve the meals, fresh out of the kitchen and warm.

With the project being fine-tuned, amid social distancing and a heightened sense of hygiene everywhere, key activities and tasks evolved. They included a shopping phase characterized by bulk purchases, packaging, notification telephone calls to beneficiaries, record-keeping, and shipping. Fatima Bangura (nee Turay) oversaw it all. As chairperson of the Social, Cultural, and Religious Committee, she rallied other volunteers for the drive.

Fatima’s corps of volunteers (photo) included herself and two other SLAA executives, Dorcas Kargbo (PRO) and Prince H. Thorpe (Asst. Youth Coordinator). Other crew members were Salimatu Jabbie, chairperson of the Membership and Finance Committee; Madiba Turay; Komeh Sandy; Amanda Shaw; Amzala Whenzle; and Fatima’s husband Alimamy Bangura. Former Assistant Youth Coordinator Harriston Collier not only volunteered; he also offered his mid-size truck for hauling the load.
Fatima and her crew divided the city into zones, to begin the delivery. Then they split into pairs as they hit the road. The entire community was updated on highlights of the exercise. This, via Facebook and Whatsapp. Dissemination of details, photos, and videos (including real-time feedback from beneficiaries), was anchored by Daniel Oldfield, chairperson of the Media and Social Networking Committee.

SLAA Secretary-General Charles Roberts heads the NHSP project committee. He is being assisted by Projects Coordinator Foday Conteh. With the coming of COVID-19, there was no access to the SLAA office, here in Edmonton. The Clareview Community Recreation Centre, where the office is located, shut down after Alberta declared a public health emergency on Tuesday 17 March 2020.

Gbessay Massaquoi (with greetings card) and Komeh Sandy on the left.

Contending with social distancing and a closed office, Roberts and Conteh (who is also Assistant Secretary-General), worked on the project remotely. SLAA’s electronic database proved invaluable in this operational context. Demographic statistics on membership had been generated from a 2019 census survey. The census had asked SLAA adults about their most pressing concerns – in addition to key personal and household characteristics. SLAA formally presented the survey findings at its annual general meeting (AGM) in December last year. The feedback from the seniors now guides the implementation of this adjusted NHSP initiative.

A SLAA household receiving their NHSP hamper from Madiba Turay

With limited physical contact and bigger group meetings proscribed by law, Roberts and Conteh opted for outreach by telephone - in implementing one other facet of the project. Roberts refers to the exercise as “informal social therapy” for beneficiaries. The aim was to engage seniors, talk to them, and actively listen to them, without comprising their health and safety. Each executive was assigned a set of SLAA households. Guided by the census database, they picked up their phones and went to work. This phase of the NHSP was completed in the days preceding the hamper delivery campaign.

SLAA senior Agatha Lebbie receives her NHSP hamper

Executives were equipped with copies of a questionnaire and tasked to make direct telephone contact with respondents. They were to ask after the health of each person. The aim was to check on the general wellbeing of each senior. There were three open-ended questions, to elicit candid feedback. A fourth question sought to verify contact details like home address, telephone number(s), and E-mail address. This exercise not only facilitated the smooth delivery of the hampers, but also helped SLAA to update its database on seniors.

Prince Thorpe delivers NHSP hamper to Honora Forster

Each respondent was given a chance to share knowledge (or lack of) about the COVID-19; and express their frustrations, fears, and hopes, about the pandemic. “My big concern is home-schooling the grand-children,” one respondent shared. “Everything is by computer now, and I don’t know computers.”

Sample of greetings card donated by artist Gibril Bangura

Reactions to these phases of the NHSP have been generally positive. “The one thing I really appreciate the hamper is the palm oil,” said one beneficiary. “Can’t wait to cook some.”

Mama G holds her SLAA greetings card as Harrison Collier delivers her hamper bag

Meanwhile, Roberts and Conteh continue to fine-tune the association’s NHSP as the COVID situation evolves. The programme has a definite time frame, after which SLAA is required to submit a formal report to ESDC.