MONTREAL -- Despite there being a system in place for charitable volunteers to get priority for COVID-19 vaccines, many organizations doing vital work have only found out through word-of-mouth, or not at all.

Kim Reid, president and founder of the West Island organization On Rock, said he became aware of the option of writing letters for volunteers “through the grapevine.”

Reid said he reached out to MNA Greg Kelley, explaining his volunteers' exposure to the virus, several weeks ago.

“He checked into it and the health minister didn't really want to do anything about it at the time. But we kept checking and around three weeks ago, we got the go-ahead. So we immediately wrote letters for our volunteers and our staff and everyone who wanted to be vaccinated got a letter and went and got vaccinated.”

But that go-ahead came not through the government, but through talking to other charitable organizations in the area.

In an email to CTV News, a Health Ministry spokesperson said volunteers for charitable entities that are a part of the province's Support Program for Community Organizations have been eligible for vaccines since essential workers in high-risk settings became able to book vaccine appointments on April 14. However, only “employees and volunteers who have physical contact with users of the organization can benefit from the vaccination.”

But that comes as news to several Montreal-area charities.

Welcome Hall Mission CEO Sam Watts, whose organization is a member of the Support Program, said he was unaware that volunteers could get vaccines, despite being in close and regular contact with the regional health authority and Health Ministry officials.

“We were not informed this was available to us, so we didn't know. However, interestingly enough, we have been, on a number of occasions, providing letters for volunteers if they asked us, not knowing if they would have any impact at all, but it's the right thing to do.”

Despite the Health Ministry's statement, there is no mention of charitable volunteers on the Health Ministry's vaccination priority website, though “workers in the health and social services network who have contact with users” are specified as a priority group for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Richard Daneau, executive director of the Moisson Montreal food bank, initially said he was unaware of any program allowing volunteers to get a vaccine. However, after searching his email inbox, he found a directive from the CIUSS-Centre-Sud-de-L'Ile-de-Montreal, dated April 19 saying “employees, volunteers and participants in activities of community organizations should not be denied access to a service or activity on the basis of their immunization status.”

The directive does not specifically say volunteers are eligible for vaccines.

Daneau noted that such a program does have benefits for charitable organizations that have seen unprecedented demand for their services during the pandemic.

“Although this may be seen by certain people as a free ticket to bypass the vaccination priorities, one must keep in mind that we would not have been able to increase our food donations by ($36 million) last year without their continued support,” he said in an email. “Maybe it does provide a faster access vaccine for those volunteers, but one must not forget those with empty stomachs.”