Archives for August 2023

Bhavana Varma’s Remarkable Journey Leading Kingston’s United Way for 24 Years


In Kingston, Bhavana Varma is wrapping up an incredible 24-year journey as president and chief executive officer of the United Way for Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox, and Addington. She’s leaving behind a legacy of remarkable transformation and growth.

How It All Started

It all started upon her arrival in Kingston two decades ago, Bhavana took charge of a struggling United Way branch. It was a time when the agency was barely meeting its fundraising goals and had lost the community’s confidence.

Turning Things Around for United Way Within a Year

But things changed quickly. Bhavana, alongside a newly formed board of directors, revitalized the branch, turning it into one of the most successful United Way Branches in Canada.

Reflecting on her start, Bhavana shared, “It was the first time I was an executive director. I had been in senior management, but I had never been an executive director”.

The agency evolved over the years, focusing more on preventing social problems while continuing to support essential programs.

Part of their strategy involved raising awareness about local social issues, such as homelessness, addiction, and mental health challenges. 

Bhavana emphasized the importance of educating the public and enhancing the capabilities of non-profit organizations to tackle these issues effectively.

“Many were unaware of the struggles facing some in our community. It was crucial to highlight these issues to garner support,” Bhavana noted.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many of these social challenges, but it also accelerated the United Way’s initiatives.

Projects like the food distribution warehouse, a mobile clinic, and the Integrated Care Hub, which supports individuals with complex mental health and addiction issues, are among her proudest achievements.

Turning Things Around for United Way Within a Year

As Bhavana looks ahead, she plans to devote more time to her role as an honorary colonel with the 77 Line Regiment and to mentor leaders of charities and non-profits. 

Plus, she’s excited about finally taking a vacation with her husband during the fall—a first in over three decades of dedicated service.

Through her leadership, Bhavana has not only transformed the United Way of Kingston but also made a lasting impact on the community she served.

This article is inspired by and includes information from an article by The Kingston Whig Standard, originally reported by Elliot Ferguson.

Bhavana Varma’s Story As She Led United Way Over The Years

In the nonprofit world, Bhavana Varma’s journey is truly inspiring. From starting fresh in Canada to making big changes at United Way, her story shows how passion and hard work can lead to remarkable achievements.

Today, we’re going to share with you a summary of an insightful discussion between Catherine Tang from Spreaker and Bhavana Varma, where shares her journey from moving to Canada, to working at United Way.

If you’re ready to learn more about Bhavana’s story, let’s get started.

“How did you first get involved with United Way?

I was a very reluctant immigrant. My husband had turned to me and said, “Do you want to go to Canada?” and I actually said no. And before we knew it, we were here. And I wasn’t happy because I was missing my family and friends. 

My credentials weren’t recognized. My experience wasn’t recognized. I was considered a new worker. So the only job I could actually get was through a Kelly Temporary Service Placement and I ended up typing receipts of the United Way. 

And as I was typing these receipts and you know, I couldn’t get a job. I suddenly woke up and looked around me, and the beauty of the United Way just struck me. We didn’t have this in India, where I come from. We didn’t have an organized way to help people. So I stayed and I just kept working my way through the ranks.

“You did mention this idea of serving and supporting the community…”

I always had that. When I was nine years old, I remember my parents took me to see this movie, it was Gone With The Wind, which is a long movie. And when I came out of it for the first time, I still remember that sinking feeling of seeing kids on the street and families on the street.It just broke my heart. 

In India, there is so much poverty, but for some reason, because we lived in base camps or whatever, I have not seen poverty. I sobbed all the way back to the base and my dad took me aside and said, “What was bothering you?” 

And I just said, “All these people, we have to do something. Like, what can you do?” And he gave some really great advice. He said, “You can’t change the world, but every day do something to help someone.”

So that’s what I’ve tried. So I’ve always had that I need to do something to help people.

“So let's talk a little bit more about your role today. Just with the United Way, what are some of the most challenging things about being in your position?”​

Not having enough time in a day. There’s so much that we can do as a community. This is a great community. Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, it’s such a caring community. It’s just the right size. 

You’re two steps away from the decision makers or the frontline workers to make a difference. So bringing your community together and mobilizing people is what the United Way does, and in a community like Kingston and area. That’s the beauty of what can be done. 

We have achieved a lot. We’ve tried a lot of new things where we’ve worked very closely with our agencies, with our partners like the city and different levels of government, with our workplaces. And it’s really creating a community that we all want to live and work in.

“With your time that you've been at United Way in Kingston, what would you say you're like when you first started in Kingston versus today?

I have never actually been in the executive director or CEO position. I’ve been kind of number two and number three, and right from the frontline, like I worked my up. It was tough. And I remember one time when I was first getting here at this place was a mess. And there were so many different voices coming at me on what I should do or not do. 

One day, I remember my dad had come to visit, and I was frustrated that I don’t know what to do. And my dad said, “They’ve hired you to make a decision; you might make the wrong decision, they’ll fire you. But you need to make a decision.”

That really helped me so I stopped being a dithering kind of what do I do, and I just started to make decisions and, you know, your confidence grows as you build decisions. And I’ve always had an amazing board of directors who’ve supported me through the whole, again, another strong partnership. 

And so yeah, that’s the biggest change in my comfort level and making significant decisions sometimes, but even the little decisions.

“You did mention this idea of serving and supporting the community…”

Bhavana’s journey is a powerful example of how resilience, coupled with a clear vision for impact, can lead to remarkable achievements in leadership and community service.

If you want to listen to the complete conversation, click here.

Bhavana Varma Awarded the Order of Ontario – Highest Honor for Civic Leadership and Community Impact

Global News recently spotlighted Bhavana Varma, celebrating her as one of 25 amazing people awarded the Order of Ontario. This award is one of the province’s highest honours, recognizing people who’ve really left their mark on our community.

Being named to the Order of Ontario is a huge honour, but Bhavana sees it as a win for everyone in Kingston, not just herself. She’s been a key player in the community, working hard to solve big problems like homelessness among young people and food insecurity, especially during COVID-19.

Bhavana started her career in Canada as a typist to become an important figure in the community development sector. Her story is a powerful example of how dedication and a commitment to making a positive difference can significantly impact our communities.

This honuor highlights the value of community service and collaborative efforts in creating meaningful change. Bhavana’s story, celebrated by Global News and recognized by the Order of Ontario, serves as an inspiring call to action for individuals to contribute to their communities.