COVID closures mean most gyms are quiet these days, but things are still bustling at Hive Muskoka as a small team of volunteers puts together bags of supplies for locals experiencing homelessness, poverty and similar struggles.
Fyonna Vanderwerf is the owner and CEO of Hive Muskoka in Bracebridge. While the main focus at Hive is fitness, Vanderwerf said community growth and outreach is an important part of her business. One of the ways her team has given back to the community is by handing out essentials like toothbrushes, soap and socks to those who need them. They’ve also distributed tents, bedding and toiletries to unhoused people in the area among other forms of outreach.
“We make our community better, we make our community healthier and we make our community kinder by paying things forward,” Vanderwerf said. “I’ve always been surrounded by good, kind people and you pay that kind of stuff forward.”
When gym goer Kim Laurie heard about their efforts, she was inspired to tell Vanderwerf about an initiative from her work in mental health and addictions.
“We have things called comfort kits,” Laurie said. “In those comfort kits, we have various items to help people make their day a little easier… a pair of mitts, or a hat and socks, maybe a reusable coffee mug.”
Paying it forward with cozy kits
The kits also typically include hygiene products, clothing and snacks like granola bars as well as oatmeal packets, tea and hot chocolate that can be made with just hot water. Products like toilet paper are something people often take for granted, Laurie said, but many people can’t just go buy those things, whether it’s due to money problems, disabilities or a variety of other reasons.
Laurie said it’s been ingrained in her from a young age to look out for other people. She grew up in a family that often fed any neighbours that needed it. She later worked in hospitality, bringing hot meals to the homeless people in her area. More than anything though, her work in mental health and addictions has helped her see the day-to-day struggles so many people face.
“I work in mental health initiatives and I have my whole career, so it’s sort of a natural thing that I consider is how to make somebody’s day a little easier,” Laurie said. “Nobody really wants to look at some of the realities in our own communities, but the homelessness rate is pretty significant.”
Though homelessness is more prevalent, and more obvious, in larger city centres, Laurie wants to remind people of the poverty and food insecurity that exist even in smaller communities.
As of May 2021, 338 of the 628 households on the social housing waitlist were waiting for a one bedroom unit with a wait time of up to 8 years, according to the District of Muskoka’s annual housing and homelessness report. In the year preceding the report, the district received 784 requests for assistance in obtaining housing as well as 984 requests for other types of support from residents experiencing homelessness.
With that level of need in mind, Laurie said she’s grateful to be working with Hive and witnessing the hope and passion Vanderwerf instills in others. The kits, which Vanderwerf calls cozy kits, are a way to help people while also educating others along the way.
“Working in mental health and addictions, one of the advocacy pieces I’ve always worked on was to decrease stigma,” Laurie said. “With mental health and addictions, but also transitional housing and homelessness, there’s massive stigma and trying to educate [the] community, it’s always one of my goals.”
Dignity through daily essentials
Vanderwerf said the cozy kits are just a bandaid when it comes to helping the many people who are struggling in the region, but it’s a simple way to show kindness to others. It’s a human right to live with dignity, she said, and things like toilet paper, adult diapers and hygiene products are part of that.
“It’s very hard for people to admit that they need help, and it’s even harder to admit that you don’t have the basic things that everyone else presumes that you have,” Vanderwerf said. “That’s what the cozy kits are all about. When you don’t have money for toilet paper, that’s a different level of poverty. I don’t think a lot of people in our community know that’s here.”
The contents of Hive’s cozy kits vary based on what donations come in, but all of them include food, toilet paper and toiletries. They also create kits for specific age groups, including things like dignity products and heavy sweaters for seniors as well as toys and clothing for kids.
Vanderwerf works with organizations like Mind Aid and Muskoka Victim Services to distribute the kits to people across the region, but she offers them to anyone who reaches out and expresses need as well. She also provides mini toiletry kits to Manna Food Bank, where she sits on the Board of Directors, so that people coming for food pick-up can also get other important supplies.
She and her team of volunteers are happy to deliver kits to locals, and they hope to put a bin outside of Hive Muskoka soon to allow for private pick-up of the kits as well as donation drop-offs. Though she’s glad to be able to help others, after distributing more than 150 kits over the past week, she worries about the people they could be missing.
“It’s amazing that people feel comfortable and safe to reach out and say they need help,” she said. “And it’s wonderful to see people do that, but also, as someone in the community that’s been here for a while, it’s a bit upsetting to see this many people who are struggling so much.”
An outpouring of generosity
While it’s hard to see the immense need present in the community, the project has also shown Vanderwerf how much generosity there is. Local businesses like Cavalcade Ford and Cottage Country Dental have donated things like money and dental supplies. One person drove almost an hour each way to drop off two cases of adult hygiene products. Someone else left a bin on their porch for a week and collected donations from their neighbours, which allowed for the creation of 21 kits.
After sharing the details of the project on Facebook, dozens of people reached out in support. Over 50 people came by in the last week to drop off donations and the majority of them wanted to remain anonymous, hoping to simply help out their neighbours. All donations are disinfected and left for three days before being packed up, and they’re taking in more donations at the Hive every day.
They have a room full of items waiting to be packed, but they can always use more toiletries, travel-sized products included, as well as winter accessories, packaged snack foods and hygiene products like toilet paper, adult diapers and hand sanitizer. People looking to make donations can email Vanderwerf to make arrangements for drop-off, or if they’re located in Bracebridge or Gravenhurst, volunteers may be able to pick up donations as well.
Vanderwerf hopes spreading the word about their efforts will help inspire others to join in or start their own initiatives, especially because the kits are so easy to make. Though the pandemic has created countless challenges, it’s also brought out the best in many people, she said.
“There are more people in our community that want to help than people that [don’t],” Vanderwerf said. “There’s more kindness in our community than anything else. There really is.”
To set up a donation drop-off or cozy kit pick-up, email Fyonna Vanderwerf at firstname.lastname@example.org.