Pete Bombaci thinks more face-to-face conversations can make the world a better place. Since 2016, he has been the executive director of the Genwell Project, a not-for-profit in Toronto that provides tips, tools and ideas for building healthy connection habits. Bombaci was inspired to create the initiative after recalling the sense of community he witnessed in Toronto during the North American blackout of 2003. With the repercussions of the global pandemic still ongoing, Bombaci believes forging strong social connections is more important now than ever before.
When I launched the Genwell Project, I was in the corporate world. Then I went and ran Movember Canada, the moustache charity. I saw the power of a moustache as a catalyst to build greater connections. I did the research and realized two things: we don’t have information about the power of connection for our health and well-being, and we as a society tend to only react after people get sick. Our healthcare system is there when we face a crisis, but we don’t focus on educating people on things that can make them happier and healthier.
We’ve been educating people on the importance of exercise and eating well for more than 50 years. We know not to drink too much and smoke at all, and we know we need eight hours of sleep and eight glasses of water every day, but we’ve never educated people about social connection. Being in community is so important to our health and well-being. In 2017 and 2018, the Genwell Project started to layer on the education component; that’s really what we’ve been focusing on right up until the pandemic. Unfortunately, nobody would listen to us — nobody would pay attention.
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We are living in the greatest era of growth in history, and that inevitably means we’re more focused on technology than human connection. Technology has impacted our lives in so many amazing ways, but we cannot survive without each other.
The pandemic woke Canadians up to the importance of social connections. What we didn’t recognize at the beginning was that casual collisions like running into a friend, neighbour or classmate are the kind of connections that truly fill us with positivity. These are the connections that make us feel like we have a community, that we are seen, that we matter. And when the pandemic began, all of that was ripped out — everything required a Zoom link, everyone was just a booking in your calendar.
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We do three things at the Genwell Project: we educate, we empower and we catalyze. Every day, through our social media channels and on our website, we give people tips, tools, ideas and information to help them build healthy connection habits. A big part of our message is saying, “Look, if you’re in a great place today, you have an amazing opportunity to make a difference in the life of a senior neighbour, or a kid who’s struggling with tech addiction, or somebody who has just lost their job.” We are all part of the solution to the disconnected world.
People who have engaged with the project will come up to me and say, “You know, I’m more conscious of my kids now” or “I’m more conscious of my elderly parents.” They are recognizing the important roles they need to play in other people’s lives.
Rawan Youssef is a freelance journalist in Ottawa.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2024 issue with the title “Pete Bombaci: Social Change Leader.”
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