To overcome feelings of boredom and helplessness during the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, Western student Catherine Qi started brainstorming, looking for ways to make a difference.
“As I read and watched the media, I noticed there was a lot of attention going towards the physicians and nurses, and rightfully so,” the fourth-year Health Sciences student said. “That was fantastic to see. But I also noticed so many other essential workers beyond the hospital wards – bus drivers, custodians, postal workers, and people working in shelters – were not being recognized.”
“Some of these workers have always been under acknowledged, in general, which kind of irks me,” Qi added.
Inspired by research
Eager to offer encouragement and shine the light on those less-celebrated professions, Qi drew inspiration from research conducted by health sciences professor Jennifer Irwin.
“I had heard about her work on the evidence-based benefits of kindness, and how random acts of kindness can do so much good for both your physical and mental health,” Qi said. “It got me thinking about sending messages to uplift those (essential) workers during these difficult times.”
Qi approached her two best friends, Vivid Ma and Matthew Ferguson, with her idea. Together, they launched Beyond the Wards Canada, a platform where people can submit messages and spread kindness through letters, poetry, artwork and performances.
Originally, the trio focused on their hometown of Toronto but, like kindness, word spread.
“We posted applications for volunteers on ‘Volunteer Toronto’ and suddenly heard from people from different provinces, and then we received submissions from people across the country. We now have volunteers from Nova Scotia to B.C., and every province in between.”
Within 10 months, Beyond the Wards recruited more than 100 volunteers to serve as outreach coordinators, community correspondents, and ‘thank you’ content creators.
Hundreds of submissions have been shared on their site and passed on through emails to more than 5,000 organizations, institutions and businesses employing essential workers in every province and territory in Canada. Approximately 1,500 to 2,000 emails are sent each month to different sectors of employment.
The group also launched a Stories Unmasked campaign where essential workers talk about their work and the unique challenges they’ve faced throughout the pandemic. Stories include the day-to-day experiences of a high school custodian in British Columbia, a foodbank employee in Alberta, a gas station attendant in Manitoba, a design instructor in Ontario and a family grocery store owner in Nova Scotia.
Qi is pleasantly surprised by the outcome of the endeavour, which she and her cofounders funded, along with a $250 Rising Youth grant.
“It was just supposed to be a small little project,” she said. “I never imagined it would become this big.”
Feedback from the essential workers has been gratifying.
“A lot of people were saying how they were tearing up reading messages they don’t often get to hear at this time, or ever. They said it was a source of motivation for them to keep going.”
Qi and her team have hopes to keep going as well. They’re currently seeking resources to expand their platform to include a podcast, where essential workers can share their stories with a wider audience.
Professor Irwin, who was previously unaware of her influence on this initiative, said she was “very moved and inspired by the tremendous work of Catherine and her team.”
“Kindness falls into the category of pro-social behaviours, which have been found to mitigate the negative effects of stress,” she said. “The Beyond the Wards team’s decision to focus their kindness efforts on essential workers, who have been navigating all manner of challenges throughout the pandemic, is both a compassionate and evidence-based approach to truly recognize some of Canada’s pandemic heroes. The growth of this important initiative is an apt reflection of the marvelous way kindness itself spreads. Every time we share it, kindness strengthens and multiplies.”
Since starting Beyond the Wards, Qi noted her connection to Irwin’s work has “come full circle.” After having her as a professor, she became a research assistant on Irwin’s Leveraging Kindness project, a three-day event in which an international group of students and educators collaborated to bring kindness into the fabric of postsecondary education.
While it was the pandemic that first motivated Qi to spotlight the daily efforts of unsung essential workers, there’s a larger, ongoing message at play.
“I just want people to keep in mind that essential workers deserve love and appreciation like everyone else,“ she said. “Be kind, no matter who you encounter, and whether it’s during the pandemic or beyond.”