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Advocates are keeping our community connected during COVID

The Stop’s Community Advocacy Office is a peer-run project where trained Advocates with lived experience of poverty provide information, referrals, and help to fellow community members.

When COVID-19 broke we had to close the physical office, but we’ve kept supporting peers in innovative ways that maintain public safety. Every weekday, they’re on the phone answering calls from neighbours who have concerns about accessing government benefits, housing, food, or healthcare during the pandemic.

The phone line has been popular, however, it’s not a solution that works for everyone. We needed to find a new way to reach community members who don’t have access to a phone, or don’t have access to a home environment where it’s safe to have a private conversation.

Armando Bernal has been a Peer Advocate at The Stop for over two years, and his warm demeanor and knack for problem solving have been a huge asset to the team and to our community. Case in point: he recently used his incredible skill with electronics to build the technology for a walk-through advocacy office!

We spoke to Armando about where his resourcefulness comes from, and how even a closed window doesn’t have to be a barrier.

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Armando at The Stop’s Good Food for All Festival in 2018

My name is Armando Bernal. I’m originally from Mexico. I had to flee from some troubles, and I spent a year and a half in an immigration detention centre in Canada before I was granted refugee status. I’ve been here for 10 years now.

When I was little, my family wasn’t having too much money. All the tools and toys that were given to me were broken. So I started doing mechanical electronics since I was really young. Actually, I started to enjoy fixing things more than just getting something new.

I try to work with the things that are given to me.

I was born without a left forearm, and when I became a permanent resident in Canada, I was offered an electric arm by OHIP. I got one, but I realized that there was no customization, it was heavy, and that it was really passive. I came up with an idea to make something cheaper, something people can customize and, yeah, something I would say is better.

“Arm-and-do.” Armando’s self-built bionic arm.

Two years ago, I found an opportunity at The Stop with the Community Action Training. I took the course, and they asked if I wanted to be part of the Advocacy team. Six months ago, I became a Mentor to other Advocates. I believe that through my time as an Advocate, I learned a lot of things that could be helpful, and that I could be a good Mentor for other Advocates. I think I’m a good teacher.

After the pandemic started, the first thing that we got [to support communication at the Advocacy office] was donated, a kind of a walkie-talkie. But it was hard to communicate—you have to push a button, there’s a lag, and then you miss the first part of the next sentence. It also didn’t guarantee privacy. The community member is outside the window and we’re talking through an Intercom, which potentially means we’re talking about private issues and passersby can hear.

It’s been busy at the office. People have a lot of questions about CERB and other benefits. People are concerned about social assistance workers, they don’t know if the workers are receiving the documentation that they’ve sent in. There’s not much communication, and it’s stressful for people. It’s a relief for them to talk directly to someone who can help.

I came up with the idea to put on an auricular device, like a regular phone. That way the community member is the only person who can hear our conversation.

Christina Andrade [our Interim Advocacy Office Coordinator] found an old telephone handle. The wires didn’t correspond, but I was able to connect it to the Intercom system. It wasn’t a hard thing, you replace the speaker and the microphone that are integrated. You have to solder the wires. To be honest, it’s like a micro surgery.

That took care of the privacy issue, but we were still using the Intercom system so there were a lot of lags. We talked about ordering another Intercom system, but it’s very hard to have anything delivered during the pandemic. The first system I tried to order, the delivery was canceled last minute. I went to my brother and said, “You know what, we’ve been locked up too much, let’s go outside.” We took the truck into Mississauga, and I grabbed two phones for $10 each, a nine-volt battery, and resistance, and now it’s working perfectly.

The walk-through Advocacy Office from the inside (left) and outside. Note: the window would be closed during service.

 

Remember taking with a cup and a string? It’s the same principle but with electronics.

I think that’s the philosophy that I’ve been living. With my arm, everything is made out of the scrap material. Nothing is really new.

You can use a lot of different things to make it work, you know, in general. You actually don’t need to buy much.

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The Stop’s Community Advocacy Office phone line is open to all Monday-Friday, 10am-2pm at (416) 652-7867 x243. The walk-through office hours will be released shortly.