The Access Centre has been a drop in centre for many years, for our entire history really, even back when we were the Women’s Centre. Being open for people to drop in anytime during our business hours was the backbone of what we did. There were times when people would come in just to hang out in our lobby and take a nap in a chair because they didn’t feel safe outside. Our open door policy was how we set ourselves apart as a place where all are welcome, a place where anyone can have Access to support.

Then a global pandemic hit and we had to find a new way.

I’m sure anyone reading this can relate to the feeling of overwhelm associated with having to find new ways to do… well… everything. Suddenly, we were working mostly from home, trying to connect with the people we serve over the phone, passing along messages through online apps to stay in touch with our team. For some people, this was a pretty easy adjustment to make, for others, it meant learning many new skills. Those of us that were a bit more technologically savvy did our best to help our more old-school coworkers and together, we figured it out.

There were some particularly funny things we had to work around. I remember how ridiculous the phone tag would get! Someone would call us for help after hours and leave a message, the receptionist would listen to the message, and call them back to get the details, then forward it on to the appropriate advocate over an online messaging app. The advocate would call the person, and leave a voicemail. They would then call us back at the office and the receptionist would have to again-pass on the message to the advocate at home to try again. This could go on for days sometimes!

Something we learned from all this was that we could help some people better by using these remote tools. Folks who lived out of town, had mobility issues, or social anxiety all found it very difficult to come to our office for drop in and wait in a crowded lobby; now we can serve those people better. We were forced to learn new ways to work but it ended up being a benefit. Now we can tailor our services to the people we help to meet them where they are at.

We’ve slowly transitioned back to in-person services as it was safe to do so. Our advocates work a hybrid remote and in-person schedule and there are always several staff present each day. We’ve been meeting folks in our office since mid-2020 with safety protocols and by appointment only. Now we are open to drop in again on Tuesday afternoons for advocacy, Thursdays for income taxes, and meetings with government outreach workers Wednesday and Thursday. Folks can stop by anytime during business hours to look through donations, book an appointment, or ask questions. Our staff are doing outreach again at other organizations and in the communities of Summerland, Oliver, and Osoyoos.  It feels so good to connect with people face to face again and there are just certain people that have a really hard time making it to an appointment, maybe they don’t have a phone we can call them on, maybe they have a brain injury and can’t remember appointments, now they can drop in and get help in a way that works for them.

I don’t think we will ever go back to things the way they were. We’ve developed new ways to work and now have the flexibility to connect with people however works best. Though it was challenging and stressful at times, it made us better at our job-helping people that are experiencing barriers get access to the support they need.