A business born of brutal Manitoba winters is helping neighbours warm up to each other one snowfall at a time.
OnTheStep is an app that connects residents with on-demand snow clearing services provided by members of their community who have signed up as contractors with the online platform.
In its second year, the business, founded by a group of young entrepreneurs at the University of Manitoba, has extended its partnership with newcomer serving organizations to include Freedom International School.
OnTheStep marketing manager Alex Shao said since OnTheStep went live in 2018 and partnered with Hire-A-Refugee — a non-profit organization that provides refugees with employment — they’ve prioritized working with similar community-minded groups.
"With Hire-a-Refugee, we were really looking at that organization, at first, to help us with our supply, but after seeing the impact that it had, especially the opportunities it brought up for newcomers to Canada, we felt it was important to expand on that and try to do more than the minimum," Shao said.
Francine Wiebe is the principal of Freedom International, a private accredited high school based in downtown Winnipeg. Freedom International specializes in trauma-informed education, individual tutoring, and English as a second language, and primarily serves refugees and immigrants age 14 to 21, Wiebe said.
She currently has an enrolment of 18 students, and a three-year waitlist. Tuition for the faith-based school is $50 a month and includes breakfast and lunch.
"Most of my students probably wouldn’t be hired just by anyone off the street," Wiebe said.
"I’m quite excited about this because this gives students a work experience, and it’s something they can put on their resume, and it’s something we can walk through with the students."
About five of Wiebe’s students will be on the OnTheStep platform this winter as contractors for central Winnipeg, and will be supported by Freedom International volunteers as they go about their business.
Wiebe said her students are keen to get out and shovel before the school day starts.
"This will be a great opportunity for kids to work, and be employed in Canada," she said. "It’s great for their self-confidence and it’s great for their resume and it gives them skills as well."
For the first time this autumn, OnTheStep offered fall clean-up services on its platform, and in collaboration with Hands of Hope, prompted clients to donate furniture to be picked up by the charity as part of their seasonal cleanup. Since 2002, Hands of Hope has provided home furnishings to over 50,000 families in Winnipeg, for free.
"We saw this as a really great way to link our service with a great cause," Shao said.
This winter, the app will again partner with Hands of Hope and folks in its pre-employment program to offer a transitional employment opportunity as they seek a full time job.
Buhle Mwanza, chief executive officer of OnTheStep, said they are looking for more contractors to sign up on the app as the snow season begins, and they have been pleased with their growth in the first year, including tripling their number of contractors and receiving 3,000 app downloads.
Through its continued partnerships, Mwanza said OnTheStep is reaching more of Winnipeg with more shovellers in neighbourhoods across the city.
"For us, being able to give people an opportunity to not only have an extra source of income to help support their family, but also feel that sense of inclusion in the community is something that we’re really striving for," Mwanza said.