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Perth-Huron survey to give data insight into vulnerable populations

Gwyneth Woods, community and family services manager for the Salvation Army Listowel, says that the information her organization receives from a forthcoming Huron-Perth region-specific survey will be vital in drafting future programming for those who access the Salvation Army’s array of services. (Dan McNee Photo)

PERTH-HURON – The COVID-19 pandemic has left many individuals and families in the Perth-Huron region facing a number of uncertainties.

Uncertainties about employment, income and even simply paying the bills on time. Uncertainties surrounding education, and what our children’s future potentially looks like inside and outside the classroom. Uncertainties involving our mental health and those around us, as we approach the five-month mark of a global event that has rocked the world on its axis and drastically changed the way we now look at everyday life – both in the present and what’s to come in the future.

Local social service organizations, affiliated partners and the municipal jurisdictions in which they operate are very much interested in how their residents have and are faring during the pandemic. More specifically, they are seeking insight into how they can help moving forward, and to what sectors require the most effort and attention in terms of developing appropriate response and programming.

To help obtain this crucial information, three partner organizations have petitioned a team from the University of Guelph to assemble a region-wide survey directed at all Perth-Huron individuals (including the City of Stratford and Town of St. Marys) aged 18 and older that will better identify vulnerable sectors of the population, and how they are contending with the pandemic from a strictly rural-living standpoint.

Utilizing the Mitacs non-profit research organization that sees federal government funding support social innovation projects like the forthcoming regional survey, the United Way Perth-Huron, the Huron Heritage and Arts Network and the Salvation Army Listowel are hoping to have as many residents as possible across the two counties’ approximately 50,000 households participate when the survey is officially released in mid-August.

“Eighty-five per cent of Canadians live in cities. That being said, 15 per cent still remain in small communities and rural environments,” commented Leith Deacon, assistant professor with the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, which is drafting the project. “Their experiences are unique to their environment. We’re just trying to kind of tease out those experiences.

“We’re going to be able to use the data, ultimately, to show how folks from rural communities have been impacted, but also provide data to local municipalities about how they can better respond to their populations.”

The region-wide project has four main objectives: To identify vulnerable populations in Huron and Perth counties affected by COVID-19; determine priority programs to support those vulnerable populations during and post-COVID-19 (specifically mental health, income and food security, and education); explore opportunities for the non-profit/charitable sector during and post-COVID; and to identify emergent mental health and economic concerns generated by COVID-19. Participating municipalities like North Perth will also benefit from the data collected to draft more effective local policies and planning strategies in response to the current pandemic and potential future disruptive events.

“We’re going to be able to use the data, ultimately, to show how folks from rural communities have been  impacted, but also provide data to local municipalities about how they can better respond to their populations.”

– Leith Deacon
Assistant Professor, University of Guelph

Gwyneth Woods, community and family services manager for the Salvation Army Listowel, said that the information her organization receives from the survey will be vital in drafting future programming for those who access the Salvation Army’s array of services.

“It’s really important for us – as we plan programs, or plan response for our community – to know how our community feels,” she explained. “Not just Perth County stats or Ontario stats, but how has North Perth dealt with this, and what are the gaps that they’re feeling, so that we can fill those. It is really important to us moving forward; we don’t move forward without that information. We don’t just want to do programs for the sake of programs, we want to know what people actually need.”

Deacon said that the survey is comprised of 22 questions and will take under 30 minutes to complete. After going live, the survey can be accessed through all devices – smart phones, computers, tablets – and will be shared extensively by all the participating organizations and their affiliated parties. Those without Internet access will have the opportunity to complete the survey via mail, as paper copies are also being distributed to every household within the survey area.

This is the first survey of its kind that Deacon and his team of collaborating faculty members and graduate research assistants have designed in terms of relating to a rural population and how it is contending with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This one is quite detailed,” he said. “It will allow us to pull data at a number of different levels; your geographic area, your age, your sex, income, job type. If you’re a small business owner, you’ll get flagged as a small business owner. If you’re retired, that’s an option. If the folks from Listowel want to know only information for North Perth or Listowel, we can pull that data and give them stats only related to that.”

The first section pertains to demographics, with standardized questions relating to areas like employment and income. The second section focuses its attention on life pre-COVID, and then how life has compared after the novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in mid-March.

“The three organizations largely are concerned about providing service provision to vulnerable populations, and that’s fantastic,” said Deacon. “They want to be able to better help those vulnerable populations they work with.”

The Mitacs-funded undertaking sees the partner organizations provide 25 per cent of the cost, and the federal government kicking in the remaining 75 per cent (formerly 50 per cent pre-pandemic) up to a $15,000 total – $10,000 of that number must be allocated towards the student salaries of those designing the given project.

Deacon said that he has been impressed with the amount of enthusiasm not only from the three partner non-profit organizations spearheading the project, but also from the municipalities and their supporting committees that stand to benefit from having current resident-specific data at their disposal going forward.

“The opportunities to benefit local residents is really significant,” he said. “The survey provides the opportunity for residents to actually have a voice in what’s being done.”

The survey can be accessed here.