Julie Van Eesteren misses seeing the smiling faces of the children and heartfelt hugs from moms she used to see every week.

An Early Years Coordinator for Sea to Sky Community Services (SSCS), Van Eesteren facilitates the Supporting Parents Along the Road to Kindergarten (SPARK) program, offering strategies, activities and advice to help caregivers support their child’s early learning.

But, since the COVID-19 health crisis began, Van Eesteren has been unable to host in-person SPARK sessions with families. That doesn’t mean families in the SPARK program have been missing out on seeing Van Eesteren’s smiling face, though, as she’s been delivering the same sage advice, fun activities and helpful strategies every week during the pandemic, via video.

Julie gets ready for her closeup

“It’s been a bit of a challenge because I’ve never done that sort of thing before,” she said. “I was a bit nervous at first, but after doing a couple, I am getting much more comfortable on camera.”

Every Thursday, Van Eesteren sends caregivers in the program a link to a new video she’s produced, which they can watch at their own convenience.

When she’s not producing informative parenting videos, she’s out hand-delivering toys and books to those SPARK families each week.

“SPARK materials and resources are packed in a paper bag a week before they are delivered to people’s doors in all our communities from Pemberton, Squamish and Whistler right down to Britannia Beach,” she said. “We are averaging 130 deliveries every week and we are using staff from other SSCS programs who have been deployed to help deliver. By Wednesday evening, everyone has received their materials.”

Van Eesteren said her biggest challenge so far has been just finding everyone’s houses, and the occasional mechanical issue with the program van. But it is all worth it when she gets to provide that simple connection that is so important.

And, going above and beyond to provide that care and connection to the community has been the rallying cry at SSCS since the pandemic and lockdown began. As the largest social service provider in the Corridor, SSCS has worked for more than 40 years to deliver critical programs to enhance the lives of residents at every stage and age of life. Now, more than ever, those services are helping people in the region to cope with everyday problems as well as crisis. But, in the case of one senior in the community using the Better at Home program, he was given the gift of music, thanks to another SSCS staff member again going above and beyond.

A friendly face, a familiar voice…and a ukelele

Roseline Grimm has been volunteering for Better at Home since her job as a lifeguard with the District of Squamish was put on hold during the health crisis. She now spends her days connecting with the region’s vulnerable seniors who are isolated at home away from friends and family. As part of the program, she delivers groceries and prescriptions to seniors, as well as DVDs and books. She also calls them a couple times a week for a friendly chat to see how they are doing and what they may need.

“My job is to chat,” she said. “To gauge how they are coping, see if their basic needs are met.”

Grimm said she gets as much out of the calls as her clients.

“Since I started these calls, I have found out the secret to the bluest hydrangeas, the best recipe to cook a blade of steak, the total distance north-south of the island of Trinidad and the best time of year to visit Austria,” she said. “They chat about their grandkids, their travel plans, their day-to-day life. It is really interesting.”

But her favourite moment by far was when she was able to fulfill a particular musical need for one senior.

“I started calling a gentleman who is a very active senior,” she said. “He bikes twice a day and is independent and self-sufficient. Every time I asked if I could get him anything, he’d answer: ‘If you are asking what I would ask Santa, it would be a ukulele. I have been wanting one for a long time.’ I laughed at first, but after a few phone calls, his answer was always the same. Finally, after reaching out to the community, I was able to find a good ukulele for free. We disinfected it, tuned it up and delivered it.”

Although he doesn’t yet know how to play the instrument, Grimm said her client is learning online and practising for 30 minutes a day now.

“He says that by the time the pool opens, and that I resume my functions as a lifeguard, he will have learned a song that he will come to play for the lifeguards of Brennan Park,” she said. “I do enjoy this work and plan on continuing volunteering with Better at Home even after my re-deployment is over.”

We’ll meet again

Both Van Eesteren and Grimm look forward to the day when they will be able to actually spend quality time in-person with the individuals and families they serve. But, until that day, they said they’ll continue to go above and beyond to provide care, connection and community throughout the Corridor.

Want to donate to SSCS during this health crisis and support its critical services and programs? Go to sscs.ca/ways-to-help.