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Pandemic or not, Barrie Families Unite wants to be there to help

'I had a front-row seat for the last year of witnessing the kindness in our community,' says Nikki Glahn, who created the popular Facebook group one year ago today

“Sometimes a good idea comes to you when you are not looking for it. Through an improbable combination of coincidence, naivete and lucky mistakes.”

Those words couldn’t ring more true for Nikki Glahn, who one year ago today (March 14) created Barrie Families Unite, or BFU for short. The online, grassroots initiative has been helping people with day-to-day essentials and information ever since. 

Looking back, Glahn admits there was zero planning prior to hitting the “create” button on Facebook on that Saturday in March 2020.

"I went to yoga that morning and I was getting this feeling that this could be one of the last times we might be able to gather together," she told BarrieToday. "The days leading up to then we had just learned that our kids were not going back to school after March break so I rallied a bunch of girlfriends to go to this 9 a.m. yoga class."

After the class, the group was milling around talking and she happened to mention some of the ideas she had.

“I was starting to feel anxious for these people who need help and can’t thrive without access to helpers," Glahn said. "I had all these harebrained ideas. Later that day, I was texting with one of my really good friends who suggested I just keep it simple (because) I had a lot of ideas, but many of them were pretty complex.”

Glahn ultimately settled on creating a space that would allow people to connect. 

“I let it linger in my brain and in the evening after dinner I went in and thought up a name and then hit create,” she said.

By the time she was heading to bed at midnight, BFU already had 500 members.

“I just knew that pushing this button was going to change my life  and it has. It has taken over my mind, my days and my heart.”

Glahn credits the massive and rapid growth of the group to simple timing.

“It just fell into a timeframe where people were all of a sudden at home and had time," she said. "The news was changing by the minute. We were learning new things daily about the virus. All these conversations were happening.

“I know people are frustrated and are feeling heavy now because it’s been a long haul, but we were in a very elevated state of mind this time last year, with high anxiety and so much unknown about not only the next two weeks, but also the next two years.”

From the beginning, BFU set group rules and expectations for not only the team, but also members in terms of behaviour, something Glahn says they took some flack for, with some members of the local media acccusing them of censorship. That was not the case, she insists.

“What we weren’t allowing was the fear mongering and the debating about a topic that had no end," she said. "What we were doing was defining what our space was (and those accusations) made me double down on that it was OK to create these safe spaces.”

If ever there was a time that people needed a safe space and a reprieve from the overwhelming amount of information, it was then, she says. 

“People needed a place to come to see the help and the positivity, and to see the organic interactions," Glahn said. "There are so many people who are reaching out to me now who are saying that coming to this group over the last year has given them so much hope and brought so much pride to the community. They used it as a way to get their glass to a half full point because it’s been a year.”

Glahn considers herself extremely fortunate to have had what she considers to be one of the best seats in the house during a time of such widespread uncertainty.

“I had a front-row seat for the last year of witnessing the kindness in our community. That’s what our group focuses on so that’s what I see,” she said. “I didn’t spend my time with the heavy and the sad. Yes, some of these situations are sad and are heavy, but you balance that with people jumping in to help complete strangers and that makes it more palatable.

"It’s very heartwarming and a privilege to have had this front-row seat for the past year.”

At the beginning, BFU was all pandemic focused, but has evolved as the year went on. 

“We had everything from questions about health concerns, what was open or closed, people asking for help, looking for ideas on how to entertain their kids who were now home. Eventually, we got into a bit of groove with living life in a pandemic… and in the summer things opened up, so (BFU) opened up,” she said.

One of the things Glahn wanted to ensure was that the group continued to keep members engaged. 

Pandemic or no pandemic, there will always be people who need help, and who may get lost in the gaps, she says, which is why BFU is continually evolving.

“One of the things that BFU is adamant about is we are not a group looking to reinvent the wheel," she said. "We have an amazing food bank that does amazing work. If you come to us and say you need food then our first question before we put your post up or help you with an anonymous post is going to be, ‘Have you used the food bank?’ and to give them information on it.”

The summer saw COVID case counts going down and more of the region opening up, which Glahn says prompted the group to also expand on what it was doing. 

“I’d say every day as our team comes to the page, it’s an evolution in process. We are constantly tweaking and evaluating what seems to be a good fit,” she said, adding she finally feels like they are in a position where they're able to be more proactive.

“Over the last year, like everyone, we have been more reacting to what’s happening," Glahn added. "Finally, we are starting to plan for what we want BFU to look like in the future. We are here for the long run so let’s be a little more guided in our vision, mission and goals so that we are in a position to move forward.”

That future, she says, could include establishing BFU as a not-for-profit organization and setting it up to be a resource in the community for the long term. 

“The feedback we’ve received is that people have enjoyed being part of something that is a neighbour-to-neighbour, boots-on-the ground type of thing. It’s allowed people to get involved at a level they’re comfortable with when it suits them,” she said. “It’s such an easy way for people to give back and pay it forward with things they may have that could help someone else who is in a crisis situation. We are bringing a light and providing a platform for people to see these situations and be able to help.”

Everyone involved with the group, she says, is a volunteer, and estimates among them they typically have eyes on the page at least 15 hours a day.

Despite it being a whole year of witnessing the community come together through the group she created, Glahn says she is still astounded by it.

“Collectively, we’ve seen all the posts, but individually, I haven’t seen all the posts. I haven’t seen all the stories and the organic help that has occurred, but would say thousands have been helped in some way or another since the group launched in the spring, either physically or mentally.”