Interview – Together We Stand

Here at CannaConnect we are extremely proud to work with organizations such as Together We Stand, who are leading the charge in supporting military families.

Together We Stand is a foundation created specifically to honour, recognize and support Canadian military families. Together We Stand was created in 2017 by Rick and Lillian Ekstein, two proud first-generation Canadians. All four of their parents were survivors of the Holocaust, leaving Eastern Europe after WWII, and coming to Canada with no family and no money. 

After retiring from a 40 year career, Rick and his wife decided that it was time to give back to Canada – time to say thank you for allowing them prosper, raise a family, and practice their religion in a safe and secure country, without fear of persecution. Deciding that it was the military community they wanted to devote their attention to, it was Lillian that pointed out that while there were many honourable organizations that existed to support the serving CAF members or Veterans, there was no foundation in the country whose sole purpose it was to recognize the sacrifices that military FAMILIES made on a daily basis. Thus, Together We Stand was born and our flagship operation (“Operation Care Package”) began. 

To date, TWS has sent out close to 10,000 Family Care Packages (including 2,500 in 2020) to Canadian military families with a loved one deployed overseas during the December holiday season. Sent with the intention of saying THANK YOU to these families who endure so much and receive so little credit for their service to our country, these care packages (valued on average at approximately $350.00) consist of pre-paid gift cards and coupons from Corporate Canada, private donors, and partners, like CannaConnect.

We were lucky enough to get to speak to Stephanie Shapiro, COO at Together We Stand, to hear about how the foundation is helping the military community in these unprecedented times.

Interview with Stephanie Shapiro, COO

“What are some of the initiatives you are working on right now?”

Stephanie Shapiro: “One of the biggest initiatives that we embarked on in 2020 was the celebration of Military Family Appreciation Day, this past September 18th. In 2019, TWS discovered that there was no day in the Canadian calendar to officially say thank you to our brave military families. We aimed to rectify this, and in June of 2019, we had a Unanimous Consent Motion passed through the House of Commons to create Military Family Appreciation (MFAD), which is now celebrated on the third Friday of every September.

Knowing that in-person festivities would not be possible this year, we launched a two-week social media campaign (#HomeFortChallenge) and asked all Canadians to build a fort in their homes or offices, post a picture to their social media channels, with a note of thanks to our resilient military families. The campaign was a huge success and reached 18 million Canadians! We were lucky to have Prime Minister Trudeau, Minister Sajjan, and Colonel Chris Hadfield participating in the spread of these messages of support and thanks.”

“Has COVID-19 changed any of your plans?”

Stephanie Shapiro: “When COVID-19 hit, we saw our military take action – both during OP GLOBE when CFB Trenton was responsible for repatriating Canadians that had been stranded abroad, and through OP LASER, when our military members were summoned to support the COVID efforts in long-term health care facilities in Ontario and Quebec. Our TWS staff immediately began placing phone calls to CAF Chain of Command, our friends within the Padre network, and to MFRCs to understand what this meant to military families collectively. What we learned helped to shape two of the newly created Operations within our organization: “The Command Post” and Operation Emergency Fund.

The Command Post was developed to address the isolation that military families were feeling as a result of prolonged time away from their serving member – be it extended deployments, quarantine periods tacked on to training missions, loss of HLTA (Home Leave Travel Assistance) opportunities… our military families were feeling alone. We created a bi-weekly web series via Facebook live, where military family members were invited to participate as guests to discuss prominent themes within the community: Grief, Deployments, Posting Season, Raising Children, Making Friends, etc. The series is raw, funny, and emotional, enabling viewers to understand the challenges and triumphs that Canadian military families experience. It’s something that we’re incredibly proud of, and we’ve had over 15,000 views over 15 episodes.

Operation Emergency Fund was developed out of reports we were getting regarding military families in crisis due to the global pandemic. Job loss, PTSD, domestic issues, financial difficulties… the CAF families – specifically the ones whose family member participated in OP GLOBE or OP LASER – were experiencing tremendous hardships. Together We Stand created Operation Emergency Fund to deliver immediate financial support to those families in need of emergency housing, counselling services, mental health assistance and food procurement.”

“How will you be distributing this year’s gift baskets?”

Stephanie Shapiro: “This year, Together We Stand was honoured to be relegated with an attaché straight to the office of the Chief of the Defense staff. With the help of General Jonathan Vance’s staff, we were able to insert ourselves as part of the deployment DAG process. The serving member simply completes a form designating where the care package should go, and we take care of things from there! 

Our “packing party” looks a bit different this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, as last year we had over 60 volunteers working within our offices to assemble the care packages. This year, however, our incredible staff members have taken up the challenge on their own, doing whatever it takes to get the packages out the door, and into the hands of our incredible Canadian military families!”

We want to thank the Together We Stand foundation for all that they do for the military community. We are honoured to play a small part in making this incredible mission come to life, and we look very forward to continuing our partnership with them for many years to come.

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