Kingston’s Bhavana Varma has been named to the Order of Ontario. On Monday, Jan. 1, 2024, the Honourable Edith Dumont, Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and Chancellor of the Order of Ontario, announced 25 new appointments to the Order for 2023, including Varma, who stepped down last year as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington (KFL&A).
For nearly 25 years, Varma served as the top administrator for the local United Way, helping the agency through decades of successful fundraising campaigns and making it one of the most prominent and recognizable charities in the city. Varma said she was first informed of her appointment to the Order of Ontario back in December but had to keep the news a secret for several weeks.
“That was the hardest thing, keeping it quiet. I was allowed to tell my immediate family, so I told my husband, my brother, and my close cousin, but that was it. It was really hard not to share the excitement,” she said.
As for how it felt to receive the news, Varma noted she was initially surprised by the nomination. “[When they] told me I had been nominated and appointed, it was such a surprise. It totally shocked me.”
In a statement released in conjunction with Monday’s announcement, Varma was recognized for her “vision” and “ability to solve complex social issues.” Among the many issues Varma championed during her time with the United Way was homelessness, as the organization often supported initiatives designed to combat the local housing crisis and assist those experiencing homelessness.
“To address homelessness and challenges facing youth, Bhavana broke down silos, connecting the right people who could effect change. That effort attracted significant new sources of revenue in support of critical human-service programs in the region,” the release read.
The former CEO said challenges related to homelessness and housing insecurity were among the first issues she tackled when she initially joined the local United Way over two decades ago.
“When I first came to Kingston as the new executive director, I visited all the agencies, and the first agency I visited was Ryandale [Transitional Housing], which is a shelter for families who are homeless. I walked in and, at the kitchen table, there was a baby seat, and that just broke my heart to think that there were kids and babies who were homeless,” she remarked.
“Since then, I’ve been very aware of this issue and the various paths that lead to homelessness. Small actions can make a difference, and that’s been a passion of mine, particularly youth homelessness.”
Over the years, the United Way of KFL&A has been able to support various causes aimed at addressing rates of homelessness amongst local youth. Varma remarked, “We discovered that Kingston had one of the highest rates of youth homelessness, [but] we’ve brought it down now… and that was a very rewarding experience: really listening to the youth, listening to their wisdom, listening to their tenacity, their experience, their resolve.”
Another issue close to Varma’s heart throughout her time with the United Way was food insecurity, particularly amongst children, as she led the agency to support programs aimed at providing healthy and reliable meals for Kingston-area youth — a challenge that has grown more pressing in recent years.
“COVID reminded us all that there are so many people who don’t have enough food,” she said. “In a rich country like Canada, to see people going hungry is just not acceptable.”
Throughout the nearly 25 years Varma spent with the local United Way, she helped the organization establish itself as one of the top charitable groups in Canada. According to a release by the agency’s board of directors in 2023, the United Way of KFL&A has been ranked among the top 100 Canadian charities for the past four consecutive years by Charity Intelligence Canada, a registered charity that assesses over 750 Canadian charitable organizations.
According to Varma, her appointment to the Order of Ontario is a testament to the enduring success of the United Way of KFL&A.
“I always thought of these kinds of awards as awards that were for larger organizations… and then to see that our amazing small community is recognized this way is very rewarding,” she said.
Varma also took time to recognize the men and women she’s worked with over the years to make the local agency what it is today, saying, “I happen to be the point person, but it’s a collective effort from the community. We live in a very caring community, and the fact that people came together is what made this happen.”
Since stepping down as CEO of the United Way of KFL&A last September, Varma has continued to champion the causes that matter to her, including anti-racism advocacy and work on housing and homelessness. In April 2023, Providence Village Inc. announced Varma as a member of its Board of Directors, and, as a certified leadership coach, Varma has also been working with over a dozen local leaders to assist with strategic and operational planning. In addition to her continued work, Varma has also found more time to travel, including recent trips to Europe and India, the latter of which she spoke to Kingstonist on the phone from.
The Order of Ontario is the highest civilian honour within the province and recognizes individuals who have “made exceptional contributions to help build a stronger province, nation and world,” the statement read. “Members of the Order come from all walks of life and represent various sectors of society including public service, business, journalism and health care.”
Lieutenant-Governor Dumont added, “As Chancellor of the Order of Ontario, it is my privilege to congratulate the Order’s appointees for 2023. These Ontarians have demonstrated the highest levels of merit, excellence and dedication in their respective disciplines, and they have made significant impacts here at home and around the world.” Other appointees for 2023 include former Member of Parliament (MP) and federal cabinet minister David Collenette and celebrated journalist Patrick Foran.
After the announcement was made on Monday, Varma said she’s received a number of congratulatory messages from a wide range of well-wishers.
“It’s been overwhelming — the number of people who have sent me best wishes, people from way back who I met many, many years ago or interacted with, and they reached out. I’m just so touched and humbled by it,” she said.
Since the Order of Canada was established in 1986, 874 people have received the honour, meaning Varma is one of an esteemed list of appointees. Nominations for 2024 are now open, with a deadline of March 31, 2024. There is no word yet on when this year’s Order of Ontario appointment ceremony will take place.