Men of the North founder Christopher Merasty and Town of La Ronge community programmer Avyn Koyl are leading the charge as the community teams up to deliver groceries and essentials to those who can’t leave their homes.

Men of the North is a support and empowerment group for northern men that Merasty founded. Part of their mandate is helping build a healthy community. Putting other projects on hold, the Men of the North have been helping with the Lac La Ronge Indian Band’s delivery service during COVID-19.

As of last week Merasty said they delivered over 101 hampers of food and essential items to those in need such as elders, single parents with children and immunocompromised individuals “or anyone in need of extra help” in Lac La Ronge. “We’re in this pandemic together and together we can get through anything,” Merasty told National Observer in an interview on Sunday.

They've since expanded their efforts to the neighbouring communities of Air Ronge and La Ronge in a partnership with community programming.

At the Town of La Ronge, Avyn Koyl is working out of a makeshift office in the curling lounge at the Mel Hegland Uniplex because of social distancing policies enacted by town council “I've got three phones there and I’m answering them all day,” said Koyl.

Town of La Ronge community programmer Avyn Koyl put together a grocery and essentials delivery service for those in need. Photograph by Michael-Bramadat-Willcock.

Koyl needed to find a way to develop community programming while also practicing social distancing. “As this dynamic [COVID-19] situation keeps changing, I was thinking, what’s essential to these people? Well, groceries and farmacy. Let’s keep that going for people,” she said.

“People are really confused and they’re fearful and just to [help people] put the fear aside and to go get some basic things like groceries and to bring them to their homes... I’m doing this because everyone matters in the community.”

Koyl explained that social distancing is especially important in the north because of the stress that dealing with the fallout of a pandemic would put on medical staff - who are stretched thin.

“It’s hard across the board for anybody. But right now the only thing that I can say is together we can get through anything. As long as we flatten this curve," Men of the North founder Christopher Merasty.

“If you’re in a larger centre you’ve got the amenities of the large hospitals and up here that’s a big challenge for our health care workers. It’s really important for us to try to keep everyone at home.”

She explained that many individuals aren’t noticeably immunocompromised but still need the help.

“If you meet them on the street you would not know. When you really think about it there’s a lot of people that are say, 30-years-old who have to go to a pharmacy to take medication every month. There’s a lot of them. You’d be really surprised at how many there are.”

Koyl described the process of making a grocery list for clients over the phone, which she says can be challenging.

“When you go to the grocery store your body uses muscle memory to shop,” she explained. “So when you try to communicate to me what you want there is a challenge there.”

Her favourite part of the otherwise mundane process of figuring out exactly what brand or item to buy for someone over the phone is that she’s getting ideas for her own grocery list.

“Personally I’m seeing things at the grocery store that I’ve never seen before. I didn’t know that at the co-op they’ve got fresh fish from Wollaston lake. And I thought oh gosh wow this is great! The world class fishing is right here and we see it at the grocery store. And you know this is great because I’m buying that walleye! I love walleye. I love jack (fish). You bet I’m buying that!”

She came up with the idea of a delivery service as a way to help people in the La Ronge area who need it. And Koyl has been overwhelmed by the response both from those in need and the volunteer turnout.

“I’m so proud to be a part of the whole idea. I’m so proud of everyone. I’m proud of the people that are stepping up to help me. I’m proud of the community that is needing a service, that’s able to reach out,” she said.

For Koyl it’s also about building partnerships within the tri-community, which means the Town of La Ronge, Lac La Ronge Indian Band and the Northern Village of Air Ronge.

“It brings a tear to my eye that we’re coming together to work as a community through a historic event. This is a historic event and I will always remember where I stood when this happened.”

The Lake Country Co-Op Food Store, La Ronge Elk’s Club and other community groups are also supporting the initiative.

There is a “no visitors” rule in effect at Lac La Ronge since last week, making Men of the North’s contribution especially important right now. “Right now there are zero cases of COVID-19 in the tri-community which is awesome and we’d like to keep it that way,” Merasty said.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan was 249 as of April 5. Three are in the Far North zone with zero confirmed in the La Ronge area to date. Source: Government of Saskatchewan. Cases and Risk of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan.

“It’s hard across the board for anybody. But right now the only thing that I can say is together we can get through anything. As long as we flatten this curve. The faster we flatten this curve, the faster we can get back to the things that we love to do.”

Those in need of assistance can call Koyl’s office at the Town of La Ronge. The service accepts payment information over the phone but doesn't handle cash.

There are presently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in La Ronge, Air Ronge or Lac La Ronge. The number for cases in Saskatchewan was 249 as of April 5.