TORONTO -- The Toronto Public Library has been calling tens of thousands of seniors throughout the pandemic to help break the isolation and provide important information about its services and COVID-19 resources.

The Seniors Wellness Check Call program began in March 2020, as 100 branches around the city were forced to close to stop the spread of the virus.

Fifteen months later, library staff have since called 36,000 people 70 years of age and up — including Sharon Jarvis of North York.

“I enjoy my own company,” said Jarvis, 75, who has been on her own for 15 years.

“The only thing I truly miss is my outings with my friends, lunch and spending time with them. That’s about the worst it is, and the library, no books. The library was closed and that’s one of many favourite pastimes.”

Unable to browse the shelves, Jarvis has focused more intensely on her hobby of painting animals. Her phone call from the library came during Ontario’s third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It came up as the ‘public library' and I always answer calls that I know. I didn’t have books outstanding, but I was interested,” said Jarvis.

Sharon Jarvis

“She spoke to me for probably 10 or 15 minutes. Very pleasant, not intrusive, very accommodating wanting to know if there was any way they to help. I was quite pleased with it.”

Jarvis said they talked about COVID-19 vaccines and if she had transportation to her appointment.

Librarian Emoke Gall is one of the staff members assigned to make the customer calls when workers initially started working remotely.

“Most are really pleasantly surprised. They definitely question if we are selling anything and if is there anything they need to do,” she explained.

“We’re calling to say ‘hello,’ just to have a friendly chat, talk about the library, where we’re at with our services, talk about books,” said Gall.

The calls have proved rewarding on both sides of the phone line. Staff miss their customers, while those on the receiving end get information they might not have otherwise.

“Many seniors don’t have access to the internet, so it’s important for us to provide information that’s not connected to the internet,” said Kim Huntely, program coordinator and the manager of North York Central Library.

North York Central Library

“You want to talk about gardening, we’ll do that do,” said Huntely, with a smile. “It’s just what we do every day in our branches.”

With COVID-19 cases down in Toronto and vaccinations up, 82 branches will welcome users back at a 25 per cent capacity limit on July 5.

Jarvis said her call with the library was the only outreach she received during the pandemic, and hopes the calls continue.

“I enjoy the calls and I think they’re nice,” she said. “It was very positive.”

At the moment, the library said reopening branches is the priority. It plans to evaluate the program, but hasn’t finished calling seniors on their list yet.

Toronto Public Library branches remain open for curbside pick-up and to access computers.