Waterloo Region’s 519 Community Collective Feeds those residents in need

By: Genelle Levy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cambridge Times
Two weeks into the global disaster that would become the COVID-19 pandemic, Julie Sawatzky’s first thought was, “how can I help people?” The Kitchener resident and former hairdresser was hoping to stay encouraged, so she started a Facebook group, 519 Community Collective, where people could share positive thoughts.
“I wanted to have a place online where people could stay encouraged and share thoughts with one another,” said Sawatzky. “But through all that sharing, I realized how in need people were.”
Sawatzky immediately started giving out food hampers from her own pantry. In total, she and her family gave out 300 food hampers. That’s when she reached out to the Facebook group she had started for further assistance with grocery donation.
Today, 519 Community Collective is composed of 7,000 members in the online Facebook group, with approximately 100 active volunteers and 12 staff members. The collective provides food, meals and basic supplies to those in need in the Waterloo Region community.
The group has a local community fridge at Cafe Pyrus, two community gardens, an emergency hamper program and 22 free food pantries across Waterloo Region. They are currently looking for a business where they can set up a community fridge in Cambridge.
“Sixty per cent of the people accessing our food hamper program are people that are on the Ontario Disability Support Program or live in a motel, group home or volatile situation,” said Sawatzky. “The other percentage are people who work and are doing the very best they can, but are limited as to what they can provide their families because of cutbacks due to COVID-19.”
Waterloo resident Lisa Atkinson is one of those people. Atkinson is on the Ontario Disability Support Program and the Canadian Pension Plan Disability Benefits program. This past week, she received Thanksgiving dinner from 519 Community Collective.
“It really made me teary-eyed,” Atkinson said of receiving Thanksgiving dinner for her and her grandkids. “It’s good to know, with all that’s going on in the world, that there’s still good people out there. With the 519 Collective, you’re able to reach out without feeling judged. They make you feel welcome like that. They are always there for you, and help you do the best that you can.”
Sawatzky said that many people don’t realize that food insecurity is a big problem in Waterloo Region. “For the majority of people who live in the region who aren’t accessing these programs, they don’t really know about these programs,” said Sawatzky.
“They don’t realize how big the need is. Like, I live in a very beautiful neighborhood, and the people on my street didn’t even know there were shelters in the region. That’s pretty telling, right?”
According to Kitchener Downtown Community Health Centre, at least 10 per cent of Waterloo Region residents struggle with food insecurity. Recent reports from CBC show that 33,000 people in Waterloo Region accessed some kind of emergency food service in the last year, and 36 per cent of those were children.
Whether it’s confronting food insecurity or homelessness in the region, Sawatzky hopes that people can approach it with a sense of love and compassion.
“People are human, and everyone is deserving of love, kindness and compassion,” said Sawatzky.