The Pro Bono Cause
Abiona Centre For Infant & Early Mental Health in Toronto provides housing, education and mental health services to more than 2,500 vulnerable pregnant and parenting young mothers and their children every year. The organization’s infant and early childhood mental health programs ensure access to resources that the women and children need to cope and eventually thrive in their communities.
Previously known as the Massey Centre for Women and Humewood House, Abiona Centre is the result of two organizations that came together in July 2021 to better serve women and children in need across Toronto.
“We're a safe haven -- a refuge for these moms,” says Ekua Asabea Blair, President and Chief Executive Officer of Abiona Centre who was CEO of the Massey Centre for 14 years before it amalgamated with Humewood House.
The Massey Centre was receiving funding from various government programs including the City of Toronto when in 2020 it received a directive instructing it to consolidate with Humewood House, an organization which was providing similar programming and residential housing for young mothers in Toronto.
“The merger made sense to strengthen both organizations by coming together,” says Ekua. “But we had to take on the task of integration so that we could achieve those greater efficiencies. That process of amalgamating two entities costs a lot of money. We needed to find the right legal minds to help us do it.”
The Osler Pro Bono Connection
In its efforts to get some help with the amalgamation with Humewood, the Massey Centre reached out to several law firms, but they all turned down the request for help. Osler’s Mary Paterson, partner in Osler’s Litigation group, heard about the request from Pro Bono Ontario and presented the idea to the firm’s Community Law Committee who accepted the project. Mary then engaged Rosalind Hunter, a partner on the firm’s Corporate team, to work on the matter.
“Mary saw the opportunity with Massey Centre as a way to do some meaningful pro bono work in the corporate law area,” says Rosalind. “We took on the mandate to help them decide the best structuring option for the merger of the two companies, guide them through it and then implement it.”
The amalgamation became effective July 1, 2021. Osler then continued to help with the name change to Abiona Centre For Infant and Early Mental Health, which became official at the beginning of 2023.
Working with Rosalind on the project was Amelia Miao, partner in the Corporate group at Osler, and Connie Fullerton, a transactions Clerk in Osler Works – Transactional. The team also received assistance from associates Matthew Ritchie (now a partner at Osler) and Alexei Kovalev in the Real Estate Group, and Melanie Simon, associate in the Employment and Labour group. Over the course of the six-month engagement the team contributed more than 200 hours of time to the Massey Centre.
“If we had to pay for all of the hours that Osler put in, it would have exceeded our budget,” says Ekua who adds that Osler was offering the most comprehensive support. “We were trying to make systemic changes that our organization needed to do to be sustainable, and along came Osler who was willing to open their doors to offer us something so invaluable at no cost. It meant everything to us. I never thought it was possible.”
In coming together as one entity, the Massey Centre and Humewood House were able to expand their service offering, especially with respect to housing.
“Many of the women who come to us do so because they're homeless -- they have no family support and feel isolated. They are poor and have no money,” says Ekua. “They’re also taking on the toughest role any one of us could play.”
Abiona Centre now has more housing spots available to offer its clients. The Massey Centre had 27 housing units but when it merged with Humewood House it created 64 housing units and 100 childcare spots. They have also expanded their early infant mental health services and education programs including a partnership with the Toronto District School Board which provides teachers to help young clients finish their high school education. Instead of having two classes there are now four classes available in the east end and the west end of the city. There are also resources for eviction prevention and new programs to help young mothers who don’t want to live onsite at Abiona Centre.
“It was an amazing experience. Rosalind and her team were just excellent. I could not have asked for a more supportive team,” says Ekua. “We're a women's organization and it was great to have these women working with us and being so understanding and supportive. It was an amazing experience.”
For Rosalind and the rest of the Osler team, it was an opportunity to explore an area of non-for-profit law they don’t typically encounter in their usual legal work.
“What I enjoy about it is the ability to help organizations like this that are doing something so important in our community and need support to achieve their goals,” says Rosalind. “My day-to-day job involves helping large corporations and you don’t necessarily see the personal or local impact of your work. For us to be able to step in and help Massey and Humewood continue to provide these services was very rewarding.”