Students support local families facing hardships heightened by COVID

Medical students and administrators pose outside on the sidewalk.

By Michelle Read

When the COVID-19 pandemic sent Jenny Daccache and her fellow University of Ottawa MD classmates home from their hospital clerkships in March, many felt driven to pitch in to support the community through the crisis.

Now, four months later, Ms. Daccache and colleagues have helped dozens of local families weather the increased hardships induced by the pandemic—forging bonds and valuable skills along the way.

The Vanier Social Pediatric Hub, affiliated with the Vanier Community Resource Centre, is an organization providing integrated health and social services to local children, youth and their families living in vulnerable socio-economic conditions. When the virus hit, Dr. Sue Bennett, professor of pediatrics at uOttawa, pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and co-medical director at the Hub, called upon Ms. Daccache for an extra pair of hands.

The team, including Hub social worker Vicki Roy, got to work contacting local families to assess their needs and assure them of the Hub’s continued services despite the shuttered physical location.

“We soon discovered that telephone calls did not fully depict how children and families were doing. Rather, in-person visits were necessary,” says Ms. Daccache. “As well, almost every family shared an urgent need for food.”

Shutdown increases families’ isolation

The families served by the Hub were already socially isolated, Dr. Bennett explains, but COVID piled on social distancing, school closures with consequent loss of friendships and supports including the breakfast program, expectations to educate and care for children full time, and economic challenges of unemployment.

“These are additional stressors to already-challenged families,” says Dr. Bennett.

Ms. Daccache was tasked with figuring out a way to serve the families with the Hub’s limited resources. ‘MoreThanJustSoup’ was born, and Ms. Daccache summoned her colleagues to join her in the student-led initiative. Ultimately, fourteen Faculty of Medicine students* joined Daccache and Dr. Bennett in providing around 50 families who signed on to the program with food and support.

Services were available in English, French and Arabic, with students visiting their assigned families weekly with food, toys and resources on parenting, education and health. The visits also allowed the students to identify needs and coordinate care and educational resources with health professionals, social workers, local schools, food banks and others in the community.

“We gained their trust and formed a genuine bond,” Ms. Daccache says. “With time, they shared more information and we were able to provide better care to the children and parents.”

While some families chose to discuss their needs and social, emotional and health concerns over the phone, most families preferred to chat while physically distancing on their doorsteps. All student-family pairings were supervised by Dr. Bennett, and the students gave her feedback on their meetings following each home visit.

Local partners pitch in

Metro, Gourmet Express (one of the Hub’s social enterprises), the local food bank and restaurants, and the Ottawa Breakfast Program all donated food for the Hub families. As well, Dr. Alison Krentel, assistant professor at the School of Epidemiology and Public Health, along with Dr. Vivien Runnels of the Faculty of Social Sciences, organized 'Bundle of Hope' to raise funds and package developmentally appropriate activities and toys, essential household items and grocery store cards for the families.

Ms. Daccache says the students also donated their own money to buy toys and snacks for the kids. “They were all very fond of their families,” she explains.

Continuing the care

With the province opening up again, the medical students have now returned to clerkship at the hospitals, and the project will continue over the summer with a second group of pre-clinical students. Dr. Bennett is currently looking at how the students might support the families in the future through community service placements at the Hub.

“The COVID restrictions created an emergent need for health and social services and resulted in this incredible collaboration between students and faculty,” Dr. Bennett says. “The students were able to directly experience the impact of social determinants on the health and well-being of the children, youth and families and recognized the importance of social accountability and social justice in their work as health professionals. I was so impressed by their compassionate care and empathy.”

“We all agree that we gained very important social medicine awareness and communication skills not as readily gained in a clinical setting,” concurs Ms. Daccache. She notes the value of working with a multidisciplinary team including a social worker, school principal and teachers, a local food bank, and local community centres to provide care to patients.

“We felt so honoured to be able to partake in this project,” says Ms. Daccache. “We were seeing the same families weekly and became very involved with their care.

“Once clerkship resumed, saying goodbye to our families was very hard for both parties.”

*Seven uOttawa Faculty of Medicine student made up the founding team of MoreThanJustSoup with Dr. Sue Bennett: Jennifer Daccache, Julia Leblanc, Charlene Habibi, Michel Khoury, Claudia Meloche, Rana Kandel and Maude Le Bouthillier Shaughnessy.

Eight more MD students soon joined them: Linda Mardiros, Saaada Hussein, Marco Ragusa, Jordan Merkas, Jeanne Seguin, Dima Hage and Alyssa Gaerke from uOttawa, and Melinda Caputo Janhager from the University of Toronto.

Donations are still very much welcome at 'Bundle of Hope'.


Main photo, l-r: Jennifer Daccache, Dr. Susan Bennett, Julia Leblanc, Vicki Roy (Social Worker), Rana Kandel, Charlene Habibi, Esther Nyagi (Hub administrator), Michel Khoury, Claudia Meloche.


A medical student organizing a food delivery.

Since the start of the pandemic, the MoreThanJustSoup program has made weekly food deliveries to around 200 individuals in the Vanier region of Ottawa. Here, Jennifer Daccache organizes a delivery of food and supplies to local families.


A group of medical students holding boxes of pizza.

The team prepares to deliver pizza donated by local restaurant chain Gabriel Pizza. L-r: Jennifer Daccache, Michel Khoury, Julia LeBlanc, Dr. Susan Bennett.

Photo credits : MoreThanJustSoup


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