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Denver Stewart, Radeesha Williams and Trudy-Ann McKenzie
From left: Denver Stewart, Radeesha Williams and Trudy-Ann McKenzie graduated in April from the Personal Support Worker and the Social Service Worker – Immigrants & Refugees programs. (Photos: submitted)

June 11, 2020

Denver Stewart is a personal support worker at Toronto’s Valleyview Residence, where there was a recent outbreak of COVID-19. She often works double shifts due to the acute shortage of staff at the long-term care home.

Radeesha Williams, a new mom with a three-month-old daughter, is a relief shelter worker at Homes First Society in Toronto, and an after-hours supervisor at The Neighbourhood Group, also in the city. A couple of weeks ago, one of her co-workers fell ill with COVID-19 and then infected his son at home.

Trudy-Ann McKenzie is a resident support worker at the Toronto-based Regeneration Community Services, which provides affordable housing for people with mental health and addiction issues. Ms. McKenzie works night shifts and often stays to fill in for absent staff.

They are three Seneca graduates from Jamaica who, after finishing their programs in April, headed to the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 while many people sheltered at home and avoided any place where they might be exposed to infection.

“Of course, I’m scared,” said Ms. Stewart, a graduate of the Personal Support Worker certificate program. “There have been deaths where I work due to COVID. At home, everyone is worried about me. But these people need our help. Many of them are confined to bed and can’t leave their rooms. They depend on us for everything.” 

Denver Stewart, Radeesha Williams and Trudy-Ann McKenzie on masks and protective gears
From left: Denver Stewart, Radeesha Williams and Trudy-Ann McKenzie are working the front lines of COVID-19 in Toronto. (Photos: submitted)

At a time when severe staffing shortages were reported in long-term care and group homes across the province, Ms. Stewart was flooded with job offers before she completed her program. Even then, she was prepared for the challenges she now faces at work.

“Trust me, I was taught well,” she said. “I had really great teachers who didn’t rely on books alone. They taught us through their own experiences and that is helping me to handle all types of situations.”

For Ms. Williams, a graduate of the Social Service Worker – Immigrants & Refugees diploma program, the decision to work in a high-risk facility was a tough call. After her first child was born in February, with the pandemic taking hold in Ontario, family and friends advised her to stay at home.

“I discussed it with my husband and we both felt that those persons in the shelters are someone’s mom, dad, or brother and sister,” she said. “If we had someone from our family in a shelter, we would want the staff to be brave and bold enough to help during COVID. So we worked out a safety plan. When I return home from work, I do not touch anything. My husband opens the door for me and I go straight to the washroom. Only after that I mingle with my family and pick up my daughter.”

While the situation is challenging, Ms. Williams is grateful to Seneca for having given her the opportunity to become a social service worker to help others.

“I was initially enrolled in another program and Seneca allowed me to shift to the Social Service Worker program even though the application deadline had passed,” she said. “That was awesome because I was a teacher back home and did a lot of social work and volunteering. I want to help people as much as I can because I know first-hand what it is like to need help and not receive it.”

“I discussed it with my husband and we both felt that those persons in the shelters are someone’s mom, dad, or brother and sister.”
— Radeesha Williams

The restrictions needed to contain the spread of COVID-19 have added to the challenges of working in a home for people with mental health and addiction issues, says Ms. McKenzie, who also graduated from the Social Service Worker – Immigrants & Refugees program.

“The majority of the residents are vulnerable people who do not understand what is happening around them,” she said. “It is very difficult to manage them as they can’t comprehend social distancing. Even though we try and explain to them that they should not go out, they still do and when they return, we have no idea where they had been, increasing the risk of infection.”

There have been infections in other branches of Regeneration and Ms. McKenzie is thankful that, with her eight-year-old son living with her parents in Jamaica, she doesn’t have to worry about infecting her family if she was exposed to the virus. In fact, she is determined to continue helping the residents as best as she can, often working eight-hour shifts followed with additional hours required due to staff absences.

“I am a social service worker and I am doing my job,” she said. “If trained professionals like me don’t work, who will take care of people who need to be looked after in homeless shelters and long-term care homes? In times such as this, you have to have a personal drive and motivation to go out and work. You can’t do it just to pay the bills; you have to have a genuine liking for your job.”