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'We give a hand up:' Chalmers new executive director talks changing perspective around homelessness

Last week, Vicki Olatundun took on her new role as executive director of Chalmers Community Services Centre

After living and working in Manitoba for 20 years, Vicki Olatundun is eagerly looking forward to serving those in need in Guelph as the executive director of Chalmers Community Services Centre.

Olatundun said her new role comes with love and understanding for the community along with a change in perspective around how we view homelessness, marginalized populations and those battling food insecurity. 

She said she was drawn to Chalmers because she saw that it built resources around the community to help people rise.

“That’s what makes me excited. That's about community and it's about lifting the community together,” said Olatundun.

“We don’t just give a hand out at Chalmers, we give a hand up,” said Olatundun adding that all the guests at Chalmers are incredibly grateful for any help they receive and she’s seen nothing but appreciation from the community.

Before arriving in Guelph, Olatundun made a difference in many communities.

She grew up in England and studied law in Nigeria before she immigrated to Manitoba where she worked as the executive director for the Steinbach Family Resources Center for six years. 

Prior to that, she worked at Saul Sair Health Centre in Winnipeg where she helped build Manitoba’s first gym for the homeless and Canada’s first fully-equipped state of the art total care optometry clinic for the homeless. 

Olatundun also was named as one of 40 Canadian Change Makers by the Canadian Immigrant Magazine and was nominated as one of Canada’s Top 75 Immigrants by RBC in 2015.

“What drives me to the role really is that we can offer hope. And in my mind, H-O-P-E is helping other people excel,” said Olatundun about her new role. 

“We are going to love you up. And help you stand up.”

Olatundun said oftentimes, people look at the low income, marginalized and homeless population in a different light.

She recalls teaching social health classes in various universities where she would ask students to come up with synonyms for the homeless.

“And they kept saying stuff like hobo, bum, lazy, no good, thieves and I thought, ‘Really? There are some synonyms that I’m looking for that I haven’t heard yet,’” Olatundun.

“And I said, ‘How about mother? Father? Aunty? Uncle? Brother? Sister? Niece? Nephew? These are our family on the street. They’ve fallen on hard times. They’ve been dealing with mental health issues, maybe dealing with addiction. But there are family members.’”

Olatundun said as a community, we need to change our perspective on how we look at the homeless populations. 

“We all know that it only takes two or three bad decisions for life to serve you a couple of curve balls and you are in exactly the same position they're in,” said Olatundun. 

She said there’s no greater power than to be able to help others and her new role as an executive director is one she is honoured to hold. 

She said one of her best nights so far was when a woman who often comes to pick up basic vegetables like potatoes for her children and was given fresh pizza. 

“This mom. You should have seen her face. When we gave her pizza she was like the kids are going to be so happy. It was just the fact that it wasn't pizza that was cold or moldy or old. It was pizza that was fresh,” said Olatundun. 

“I would have just loved to be a fly on the wall to just see the squeals of joy from these kids and that's the beauty of what we do. Because you can't put that in a bottle. That look in that mom's eyes, you just can't describe that kind of treasure.”

“And people feel like we’re doing them a favour. That day I walked home feeling 10 feet tall.”

Olatundun said Chalmers is currently facing the same challenges as similar organizations which is the challenge of limited interaction.

“Interaction is how we grow,” said Olatundun, adding that COVID has really limited social interactions of their guests but Chalmers remains open on their pantry days. 

Olatundun said she feels lucky that she has a chance to serve the lovely community of Guelph and has been learning from the previous executive director, Peter Gill.

Gill served as the executive director for Chalmers from 2017 to 2019 as a volunteer. When the pandemic hit, he came out of his retirement to step back into his role until Chalmers found a new executive director in a paid position. 

“We are delighted to have Vicki join our organization during this particularly challenging time,” said Gill. 

“Like most charities, Chalmers has seen an increase in need in 2020 among some of Guelph’s most vulnerable population. We have steadily been increasing our presence and visibility in the community and I’m sure with Vicki on board we will continue on that path in the years ahead. Chalmers sees roughly $95,000 spent annually on food for their guests and with the pandemic, the need has only increased. 

Gill said some of his most memorable accomplishments in the role of the executive director include the partnership with 10C — also known as the capital campaign where they purchased 42 Carden on Macdonell Street in 2017 which made them partners with 10C and saw a huge growth in demand for services particularly on food and clothing and socialization hours —,developing the visibility of the organization in Guelph and being able to help those in need.

“We’ve always maintained our core philosophy of respect and dignity for all which means guests, volunteers and staff. I think we’ve been able to kind of maintain that,” said Gill. 

Gill said he will remain at Chalmers as a volunteer and will be happy to serve a new role if needed. 



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Anam Khan

About the Author: Anam Khan

Anam Khan is a journalist who covers numerous beats in Guelph and Wellington County that include politics, crime, features, environment and social justice
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