Julia Bielecka was at work at the Ministry of the Attorney General when a man drove a van onto the busy sidewalk on Yonge St. on April 23, 2018.
A total of 10 people were killed, 16 injured and left behind family and friends grappling with their loss.
One of the fatalities was Anne Marie D’Amico, who was a high school friend of Bielecka, who is a Victim Services Toronto volunteer.
“Right away I knew I had a role with Victim Services and I thought, ‘What better time than now,” she said, of reaching out to volunteer her time.
In the aftermath of the attack, Victim Services was stretched to the limit.
The organization took the lead role to ensure victims, their families and residents impacted have access to resources and someone supportive to speak with.
“I spoke with my employers and asked them if I could come in to help Victim Services out,” Bielecka recalled. “They said, ‘absolutely because that’s where the resources are needed’. They told me to go ahead and they would figure things out in the office.”
She spent four days answering phone calls from victims, their families and citizens offering their support.
“The phones were ringing non-stop and we hardly took breaks,” said Bielecka, who now works with the Ministry of the Solicitor General and is a VST relief staff member. “We were supporting everybody.”
VST has nearly 200 volunteers.
In these unprecedented moments where we have had to deal with such sadness and tragedy, Victim Services was there to provide a strong foundation for support, a calm and compassionate response
To mark Victims & Survivors of Crime Week, Toronto Police Service annually recognizes an individual or organization that demonstrates outstanding service in supporting victims and survivors of crime.
This year’s Leading the Path Award was presented to VST, whose staff and volunteers worked tirelessly in the aftermath of the Yonge St. Van Attack and the Danforth Shooting on July 22.
The award was presented on May 27 at police headquarters.
“The Toronto Police Service has a longstanding relationship and partnership with Victim Services, so we know first-hand how their work supports victims and their families each and every day,” said Deputy Chief Barbara McLean. “We also know first-hand how that demand increased 35 per cent last year over the previous year because last year we saw two very large-scale events that really demonstrated the challenges and complexities that are involved in serving victims for mass casualty events. They tested our city’s capacity to serve victims needs.
“This truly was a whole city’s response and Victim Services rose to that challenge with their volunteers and staff working countless hours for several weeks after these events to ensure that those who were affected got the help that they needed. When we sat down to determine who was a worthy recipient of this year’s award, it was clearly evident at first. But then a light bulb came on. How could we not think about the amazing work that Victim Services did, not only for those two events, but all the shootings and homicides we had during a very busy 2018.
Toronto Police Services Board member Ken Jeffers said VST fully deserves the honour.
“In these unprecedented moments where we have had to deal with such sadness and tragedy, Victim Services was there to provide a strong foundation for support, a calm and compassionate response,” he said. “For this, they have our extreme gratitude.”
The Community Partnerships & Engagement Unit (CPEU) hosted the event.
Supt. Dave Rydzik, the CPEU Commander, is the Service’s liaison to VST.
“Last year was one in Toronto we will never forget,” he said. “Those two events really tested the Toronto Police Service and all emergency services in the city. But it really tested our Victim Services whose personnel and volunteers were affected. Their job every single day is to go to these traumatic events in people’s lives and help them deal with it. I worked very closely with them after both attacks and they were tested to the limit. In the days that followed, I got the opportunity to watch them in action dealing with people in crisis.”
The award was presented to VST Executive Director Bonnie Levine.
While honoured to accept it, she said the organization could not have done all the hard work without the help of many people in the community.
“The Power of Collaboration which is this year’s theme for National Victims & Survivors of Crime Week, is especially poignant for us at Victim Services Toronto,” she said. “It truly reflects the outpouring of help and support that we witnessed and experienced during some of the city’s darkest hours.”
Levine acknowledged the extraordinary work of VST staff and volunteers who went above and beyond.
“They worked long, hard and extended hours for weeks on end,” she said. “Those hours were intensely filled with emotions running high, with grief, worry, stress and agony. Our staff willingly changed schedules, cut their vacations short or cancelled planned vacations altogether. Many of our volunteers took time off work and put their businesses on hold in order to help. Our team at Victim Services worked tirelessly to hold Toronto together.”
In addition to the VST leadership team that includes Bobbie McMurrich, Kiran Brar, Sarah Rodgers and Lindsay Upton, Levine showered praise on Rydzik and the CPEU, the VST Board of Directors led by Linda Massey, Mayor John Tory, the Toronto Foundation and Barbara Hall for initiating and administering the #TorontoStrong and #DanforthStrong Funds for victims and their families.
She also thanked companies and individuals that donated to the funds, Airbnb, Aspiria-EAP that offered free counselling services to victims and families, MCIS that provided free language interpretation, Loblaw’s that donated $20,000 in pre-paid visa cards for families travelling to the city, Victim Services York Region, Hamilton Police Service’s Victims Services Unit, Toronto Fire, TD Bank, BMO, Juliette’s Place, City of Toronto Community Grants Partnership, Ontario Ministry of Attorney general, Victims & Vulnerable Persons Division, Unison Community Health Centre and the Barbara Schlifer Commemorative Clinic.
“That is the power of collaboration,” said Levine. “We learn about ourselves by how we act in the hardest moments. And Toronto really showed up. These hugely significant contributions changed lives and helped mend a community.”
Learn more by visiting the Victim Services Toronto website.