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All photos by Hingman Leung.

Community Builder Awards: Meet five outstanding locals who are volunteering to help others through COVID-19


When physical distancing measures were put in place by local health authorities t​here was—and continues to be—a growing need to support those who are most vulnerable and whose circumstances might be more difficult under COVID-19. Many folks have stepped up and are generously putting their time and talents into making a difference during this time of need. ​While COVID-19 has made things more challenging for many, we have also seen people across Ottawa band together.

In May, we put out this call for nominations in partnership with United Way East Ontario asking for the names of COVID Heroes: outstanding volunteers in our community. We asked you to nominate someone you know who has stepped up to support and help others in this time of crisis.

Today, for Ottawa’s 613 Day, we are celebrating five remarkable Ottawans whose volunteering has had a great local impact. They will receive Community Builder Awards and have their names inscribed permanently on the Wall of Inspiration at Ottawa City Hall, so people will know of their contributions for years to come.

Award recipients were chosen for their exceptional and early contributions to vulnerable communities in Ottawa. They have demonstrated a strong ability to mobilize their communities, going above and beyond their regular volunteerism. They also represent the kind of quiet determination and heroism that inspires others to act, leading by example. We thank all who took the time to nominate their heroes, and look forward to other opportunities to celebrate them.


Photo: Hingman Leung

Christina Ranieri

When COVID-19 hit, Christina Ranieri started making grocery runs, sanitizing every purchase, and delivering food to more than 300 people who were afraid or could not risk leaving their homes due to illness or disability. She would only go out once a week, as mandated by our health officials, to stock up on supplies and food. She personally cleaned every item that was bought or donated, and packaged them up safely. Then she headed out to make deliveries to people with disabilities or those experiencing homelessness who she knew were in need of help. Christina has also been delivering protective equipment like masks, hand sanitizer, emergency blankets and more to people who need these resources in order to attend critical health appointments, and has helped prepare “go bags” containing individuals’ personal and medical essentials in case of hospitalization.

“The need will always exist. There will always be gaps.”

“The need [for volunteers] will always exist. There will always be gaps,” says Christina. Access to support services is never a given. “You’d be surprised how many times one word can devastate somebody from getting the support that they need… A word in legislation, in policies, in medical documents… Most people who apply for social assistance will be denied right off the bat, no matter how good the paperwork is. I’ve been doing this for years—I’ve never seen anyone accepted right off the bat even with proper documents. They always ask for more, which costs the individual to obtain.”

Christina is a long-time volunteer, advocate, and leader for people with developmental and physical disabilities, both as a consultant and through charitable organizations such as Ability First Ottawa, which is fundraising to cover the costs of distributing medical supplies and food items to people with disabilities and their families, and coordinating with outreach teams to make crisis relief kits available for the homeless population. You can support this initiative by donating via Canada Helps.

Christina is the Executive Director and Board President of Ability First Ottawa, both volunteer positions. So, along with local broadcaster Dylan Black, we crashed a Zoom meeting of the Ability First board of directors to surprise Christina with this award.

“Christina’s relentless spirit, pushing herself to continue getting essential supplies like hand-made masks, emergency blankets, hand sanitizer, food, and drinks to over 300 people made her a clear COVID Hero and all-around Community Builder in my eyes,” says Dylan.


Photo: Hingman Leung

Nicholas Scott

Nicholas is a grade 11 student who started volunteering at retirement homes and long-term care facilities a couple of years ago, helping with recreational activities and offering companionship to seniors. At the Hillel Lodge long-term care facility, the Duke of Devonshire Retirement Residence, and Olde Forge Community Resource Centre, Nicholas is cherished by residents for his kindness and ability to brighten somebody’s day with music and conversation.

When COVID-19 hit, Nicholas was told his academic co-op placement at Hillel Lodge would have to be cut short. However, despite an early end to the school year, Nicholas put his free time toward imagining creative ways to keep seniors socially engaged.

Nicholas realized the coronavirus would only increase the isolation and loneliness experienced by seniors in our community, and that the need for continued engagement would be essential in supporting this vulnerable population. Ever since March, he has been creating trivia kits and activities for seniors, leading joke and storytelling sessions, calling folks regularly to check in and chat, and—his specialty—recording personal concerts with his clarinet for them to enjoy.

Since the weather has warmed up, he’s started playing driveway concerts for seniors in his community. One local senior said Nicholas’s concert and choice of music was incredibly thoughtful and wonderful to hear. She refers to Nicholas fondly as her “angel” during this difficult time and is so grateful to have gotten to know him, even if it has been from a distance.

“He has made this community a measurably better place.”

“Nicholas has given back to his community in an amazing way. He has made this community a measurably better place, during a time when circumstances are difficult and strained for every one of us,” says Rabbi Reuven Bulka, who joined us on a Zoom call (one of Nicholas’s weekly check-ins with a friend at Olde Forge Community Centre) to surprise Nicholas with the Community Builder Award.

“Those that know Nicholas,” adds Rabbi Bulka, “are aware that he goes above and beyond to bring sunshine and smiles into the lives of many isolated and vulnerable seniors living in Ottawa’s west end.”

When asked if he plans to audition for music programs after his senior year at high school, Nicholas says no, he’s already thought about it and would like to study to become a social worker.


Chef Joe Thottungal (centre) with the kitchen team at Thali. Photo: Hingman Leung.

Joe Thottungal

Many know Joe Thottungal as the talented, award-winning chef behind Ottawa’s Coconut Lagoon and Thali restaurants. But Joe should also be known for inspiring and leading others to make a difference in their community.

During COVID-19, Joe has dedicated Thali’s kitchen to making food for homeless families. Since the pandemic began, he has donated his time and restaurant to make more than 1,800 meals weekly for people without a home, who are now facing even more difficult struggles because of physical distancing and closed facilities and buildings.

When COVID-19 hit, Joe rallied chefs Kent Van Dyk, Jishnu Sreenivasan, Scot Cunningham and volunteers from well-known local restaurants including Adam Vettorel (North & Navy), Patrick Garland (Absinthe), and Tim Stock (Thyme & Again) to pitch in on this pop-up project. With their restaurants closed early in the coronavirus outbreak, these chefs accepted Joe’s invitation wholeheartedly, seeing the volunteer work as a great use of their time. Joe coordinates all the volunteer chefs, manages the space and, of course, he cooks, to make sure no one goes hungry while times are tough. Together, the team has prepared more than 20,000 meals for people in need. Free meals, no questions asked.

Kickstarting the project, ingredients for these meals were supplied by the Food for Thought Net-Café, a community resource and meeting space that supports local residents in Ottawa’s Carlington neighbourhood. The café suspended its operations due to the pandemic, but decided to redirect its budget to help feed homeless families through the Thali restaurant project. Readers can support this initiative with a donation through the Ottawa Community Foundation.

Joe has continued to do this work even after a fire damaged Coconut Lagoon a few weeks ago. Everyone is experiencing their own painful challenges right now, but Joe is intent on serving others, no matter what. He has always prioritized community service alongside his business, whether it’s supporting charities or local fundraisers that address poverty and hunger in our community. For many years before this, and now during the current crisis, Joe has been an inspiring volunteer for Ottawa and beyond.


Photo: Hingman Leung

Gwen Madiba

Since the pandemic hit Ottawa, Gwen Madiba has dedicated countless hours to assisting vulnerable people in our community. She launched the International Students Emergency Relief Fund to assist students in need. Not only did she rally the community to grow this fund, but she actively advocated to MPs and other members of government on behalf of international students. This advocacy led to the government’s inclusion of international students in its emergency response. Gwen also developed a food program to ensure international students would have access to free food during the pandemic.

Six days a week, Gwen volunteers to deliver Meals For Hope to seniors, people living with disabilities, people with underlying medical conditions, and families who do not have a home kitchen while they await housing. She coordinated with the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, IKEA, and the Ottawa Police Hoopstars to ensure that more than 100 families in need had access to food and home supplies. On top of volunteering, she single-handedly fundraised $10,000 so Meals For Hope could continue its important work, and helped recruit volunteers who can speak 12 different languages, ensuring the organization can reach out to newcomers. She also delivers weekly meals to frontline staff at l’Hôpital Montfort.

That’s not all. One weekend, Gwen rallied Ottawans to show support to a single mother and her three sons (aged 9, 15, and 19) who have been experiencing serious hardship. When Gwen met the family while delivering food, she was touched by the story of newcomers who had overcome so much adversity—even before COVID-19—and now faced even more challenges due to the pandemic. In the span of 48 hours, Gwen was able to collect over 100 home items for the family, including food, a brand-new bed for the boys, a brand-new queen-size bed for their mother, a new living room sofa, kitchen table, toys, sports equipment for the boys, cutlery, plates, and kitchenware. Supported by a community of giving people through the COVID-19 Community Care Ottawa Facebook group, she touched this family in a way that they will never forget, and made everyone who donated feel very much a part of this journey.

“It was a moment that will forever stay engraved in my mind.”

A volunteer who helped Gwen with that delivery was inspired to write a nomination letter for this Community Builder Award. “I was there to witness the moment… It was a moment that will forever stay engraved in my mind and those of the volunteers who accompanied us. The mother got on her knees and cried tears of happiness while thanking God… for over 10 minutes. She kept asking if she was dreaming and stated that blessings like ‘this only happens to other people.’ Her sons were in tears as well and complete disbelief.”

Gwen does all of this volunteering while taking care of her one-year-old son. As a mother, she made a personal request to the Meals For Hope organization to expand its service to deliver to families at CHEO, so that parents who are struggling financially and are already worried about their child do not have to worry about meal planning and food security.

Recently, Gwen played a key role in co-organizing the peaceful march of solidarity in honour of George Floyd, which drew thousands to Parliament Hill on June 5.


Photo: Hingman Leung

Charlotte Smith

Charlotte Smith is a Masters student in Sociology at Carleton University, a former addict and homeless youth who has used her lived experience powerfully and without apology as a platform for change and to uplift and support youth experiencing similar circumstances.

Over the years, Charlotte has developed a support network for youth she meets through research for her M.A. thesis. Charlotte lived on the streets of Ottawa for several years, and was in and out of jail on probation, so she shares her personal experience with research participants. She leaves them with her contact information and says, “If anybody asks us for help, we’re going to go out and help them as much as possible.”

When COVID-19 hit, Charlotte immediately started reaching out to homeless and precariously-housed youth in her network to ensure their safety, because many services, drop-in centres and shelters had to adapt their practices or close their doors. Charlotte and her team of peers have been delivering necessities, donated phones and tablets, cigarettes for those coping with withdrawal, and many other items that keep young people connected and as healthy as possible through the pandemic. “A lot of them don’t have technology or ways to stay connected,” says Charlotte. “If they have an apartment or a room somewhere, they don’t have much else. Unless I go knock on their door, I don’t know that they’re okay. Most don’t have access to online mental health resources.”

“Mental health is worsening for everyone, but when you’re experiencing homelessness, even when you get help, that experience follows you forever.”

During the pandemic, there are additional concerns for young people experiencing homelessness. In an interview with CBC Radio, Charlotte said “mental health is worsening for everyone, but when you’re experiencing homelessness, even when you get help, that experience follows you forever. It’s hard to watch these young people cope, when on a good day they’re already struggling with food security, to find employment… This pandemic is very unnerving because one by one I’m seeing people break down.”

Charlotte says that anyone who wants to help can donate to Operation Come Home, a drop-in centre for youth experiencing homelessness. They need safety gear so they can stay open, whether that’s gloves, masks, or cleaning products. Cash donations are always welcome. When they were required to close their drop-in centre at times during the pandemic, Operation Come Home recognized the important work Charlotte has undertaken at a grassroots level and donated $1,000 from their operating funds to her cause.

“We can all be kind and listening to one another,” says Charlotte. “Really listening to the needs of our neighbours.”


While we don’t yet know when we will be able to gather again at the Wall of Inspiration, we look forward to adding the names of COVID-19 Heroes to these walls in the future and keeping you updated on the progress of these remarkable Community Builders.