Corp Comm Connects

No matter where you are -- East Gwillimbury, Vaughan or King City -- volunteers jump to help

Alexandra Pokras created Helpshare, a website where people can post free items so new immigrants can select what they need
May 9, 2022
Simone Joseph

Alexandra Pokras knew she couldn’t handle anymore sitting around, listening to details of the atrocities in Ukraine, without helping.

“I was devastated by what was going on.”

The Vaughan resident had already been collecting items she thought could be useful to refugees. She knew other people were dedicating parts of their garage to storing items they thought the refugees would need. The question was, how to organize all these items so they could be easily found?

“I saw a need. I decided not to wait and see if someone else does something,” Pokras said.

Born in Moscow, Pokras also has roots in Ukraine.

Pokras created the website Helpshare, where people can post free items so that new immigrants can select what they need.

Volunteering can help people deal with a global crisis, said Rebecca Shields, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association for York Region and South Simcoe.

“The data around volunteering is so strong, because in helping others, we truly help ourselves,” Shields said. “You're volunteering with other people, so you're part of something. You're not alone ... It gives you a sense of purpose.”

Bonuses of volunteering: “Being able to give back, being recognized for contributions and not just feeling like you always need help, but that you can make a difference in somebody else's life.”

On Pokras’ website (, there are close to 100 items, including free baby cribs, clothing and toys. In the future, she wants to include services such as haircuts, classes and also jobs.

On her website, you can post anywhere in Canada, but she’s hoping the site will spread beyond Canada.

Like Pokras, East Gwillimbury resident Marina Gavrilov has been collecting items for needy people -- for people in Ukraine. Gavrilov has been amazed by her fellow East Gwillimbury residents who have reached out to donate items like clothes and toys.

“It’s unbelievable what people will do,” she said. One family donated two boxes of medicine from Costco for Ukraine. She estimates it is worth about $1,000.

“I think this changes how people connect,” she said. “It amazes me people without a background in either country are ready to display empathy.”

Gavrilov also met an Israeli woman with no connection to Russia or Ukraine, whom she describes as having a huge heart. This King City woman cooks for people who are immigrants and are hosted by another family. She delivers food to them.

Gavrilov explained why she volunteers: “It keeps me from going insane.”

She can relate to the immigrant experience since she immigrated from Russia to Israel to Canada. “We didn’t have anything. We were empty-handed,” she said.

“It’s important to know every day that people are struggling. We can help somehow at least.”

Global events impact us as citizens, Shields said. “They (global events) have an emotional toll and it's real fear ... you get overwhelmed and exhausted and it reduces your resiliency, and it can lead to depression, anxiety, because it's incredibly stressful. And if you have a loved one, friends, families in the region, there's also a sense of helplessness associated with that.”

The CMHA’s bounce back program has been adapted for those feeling overwhelmed by global events, Shields said. It’s a free, guided self-help program for those 15 and up experiencing mild to moderate anxiety or depression, or feeling low, stressed, worried, irritable or angry. Participants receive telephone coaching, workbooks and online videos. It’s not a crisis service or counselling, but a life skills program.

“I know people who have family left behind and it's an everyday worry and crisis over time,” Shields said. “It can lead to stress, anxiety, burnout, illness, you know, because our physical and mental health are all connected.

“Sometimes it's also hard to give yourself permission to unplug. And how do you not feel guilty about doing self-care when you (know) a family who's experiencing a war?”

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