Building Homes, Building Lives: My Volunteer Journey

Sean O’Neill shares his experience volunteering with 12 Neighbours, transforming lives in Canada’s unhoused community.
Building Homes, Building Lives: My Volunteer Journey
Mar 21, 2024

By Sean O’Neill · Account Manager · Canada
With Helen Gall

4 Minute Read · 6 Minute Listen

In the chilly nights of Canada, as many as 35,000 people find themselves without a home.

Colorful tiny homes nestled in a lot between lush Canadian forest.Housing-first is a key component of 12 Neighbours’ mission to end homelessness. Each resident receives their own tiny home in the community, fully equipped with a kitchen, bathroom, solar panels, and a Cisco Meraki network.

It’s a reality that’s hard to grasp until you’re in the midst of it: The struggles of unemployment, abuse, mental health issues, or addictions are often compounded when one loses their shelter.

I saw these struggles up close when I volunteered with 12 Neighbours, an organization set to change the way we approach homelessness.

Founded by Marcel Lebrun, a respected tech entrepreneur in New Brunswick, Canada, 12 Neighbours is not just a housing project. It’s a community of nearly 100 tiny homes that provides more than just a roof over one’s head.

It offers developmental support and employment opportunities to Canadians experiencing homelessness. I was drawn to their mission of empowering individuals to lead independent lives and break the cycle of homelessness.

In December 2021, a small team from Cisco volunteered at the 12 Neighbours site. Back then, there were only three residents and six tiny homes.

Group of people standing in front of one of the newly built tiny homes in the 12 Neighbours community.Cisco Canada President Shannon Leininger tours 12 Neighbours to see the Cisco grant in action, led by long-time resident and Mayor of 12 Neighbours Richard “Al” Smith.

We were given a tour of the grounds, where we learned about the project’s vision and potential benefits to the community and the city of Fredericton. We recognized immediately how Cisco’s technology could help accelerate their success.

Fast forward to October 2022, with the help of Cisco Canada’s Digital Impact Office, we were able to secure a Cisco Product Grant for some gear. We got to work installing cameras, sensors, and access points.

Once connected to the Cisco technology, this once quiet community sprung to life. Residents could access services and entertainment from their own homes. Using license plate data from the Meraki cameras, Marcel began working with local law enforcement to ensure 12 Neighbours remained a safe haven without compromising residents’ freedom.

Cisco's partnership has been game changing for us at 12 Neighbours. We had no idea in the beginning how critical this internet and security infrastructure and the team’s support would be for our community. Our community members rely on this network as their primary means of communication, and our staff use it extensively, daily, to keep our community safe. It is also foundational to our investments in personal development and training to help individuals overcome barriers to independence.
— Founder of 12 Neighbours Marcel Lebrun

As the community grew, so did our partnership.

Our attention shifted to the Social Enterprise Centre, the on-site café and retail space that serves as a learning and earning space for residents. With the support of a Regional Solution Grant, we could design the centre, establishing micro-businesses with both physical and digital presence to maximize their reach and impact.

Three men stand in front of a construction site.Meraki TSA Andrew McCracken, Account Manager Tony MacKinnon, and Account Manager at Andrew McCracken Sean O’Neill at the 12 Neighbours site in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

“It’s hard to progress in life without a roof over your head, but you need more than a roof,” Marcel says.

You also need community, opportunity, and dignity. That’s what we want to provide in this community. And the Cisco team, including myself, are committed to supporting this mission.

The experience has been a testament to the intent behind Cisco Foundation’s Regional Solution Grant Program — to enhance local partnerships between Cisco employees and charitable organizations in communities we care about.

It’s about leveraging technology to deliver impact in areas like crisis response, education, economic empowerment, and climate impact and regeneration.

I encourage you to join in supporting the amazing work of 12 Neighbours or a cause close to your heart. Learn more about the residents, donate to the cause, or you can nominate a local charity for the Cisco Regional Solutions Grant Program.

Together, we can make a difference.

Employee resources

Related links