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Toronto Community Health Centre focuses on sense of belonging to improve newcomer health

Immigrants come to Canada for a better life but in many cases their health gets worse. According to a 2011 Toronto Public Health report, when they arrive in Canada most newcomers enjoy better health than Canadian-born residents but over time, newcomers lose this advantage as their health declines.  Sometimes the reasons for this loss are obvious: inability to pay for healthy food or adequate housing.  However the report also points to other factors:  the fact that many newcomers feel marginalized and not part of the communities where they have settled.  All too often, they face discrimination. This harms their mental health and prevents them from accessing the health and social services.  Language barriers add to feelings of isolation. In many cases, newcomers have lost family and social support networks that helped them through tough times back in their home countries. 

To create more caring connected communities that support newcomer health, in 2013 South Riverdale Community Health Centres launched a three-year program called the Sustaining Health Advantage Initiative (SHAI), in three high needs but underserved Toronto neighbourhoods of Thorncliffe Park, Pape-Cosburn and Blake-Jones. 

This program is a peer-led initiative, funded by the Trillium Foundation. Chinese, South Asian, Caribbean, African, Southeast Asian, West Asian, and Filipino newcomers make a large proportion of the population in these areas. “We strive to enhance community vitality and peoples’ sense of belonging. That means creating active, inclusive communities with networks and relationships that help people thrive and enjoy better health,” says program manager Andrew Omurangi. 

Omurangi says in all three neighbourhoods, newcomer health is an issue because people feel excluded and isolated.  Promoting trust is critical and so the project is working with community members to make sure they feel connected in the best possible way.  All efforts are designed to promote good health while at the same time fostering community vitality and a sense of belonging.  Initiatives include: workshops on how to ride a bike, as well as access to free bikes, group educational and adventure walks through the neighbourhoods, learning sessions on how to read food labels and use household cleaning items.  Participants get together for social occasions and share information about what they are learning about their new country. 

“I am happier because I know my neighbours better,” says Parveen Akhtar, who arrived in Toronto from Pakistan three years ago and participates in a wide range of SHAI activities. “And my self-esteem is also much improved.” 

Parveen is taking full advantage of the program’s many different components that help her navigate her new life in Canada in the healthiest way possible. “I learned how to ride a bicycle. I buy food wisely and pay attention to food labels.  I also learned how to access all the services at South Riverdale CHC like the social worker, nurses, doctors, eye-check-up for people with diabetes and postpartum support services that my friends are involved in.”

Because of its success, South Riverdale CHC intends to run SHAI for many more years and plans to use the Canadian Index of Wellbeing to guide and evaluate its efforts.  The index is a comprehensive measurement framework designed to measure progress on quality of life domains, including community vitality.

 “Community vitality and sense of belonging play a huge role influencing people’s health. That’s why our Community Health Centre applies a concerted and rigorous approach to evaluate and improve our efforts making sure newcomers feel connected and accepted in their new country,”  says Omurangi.

South Riverdale is one of Ontario’s 75 Community Health Centres.  Building community vitality and people’s sense of belonging is a core principle of the comprehensive, holistic model. For this reason, Community Health Centres deliver medical services in combination with health promotion and community developments activities.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015