Two hundred and ninety-two

“They told me that most likely there would be enough volunteers to help serve food, and what was really needed is people to just sit and chat with those having a free meal.” 

What an amazing, inspirational evening!  I spoke two days ago of what it means to be on the front lines and I met some people tonight who devote their lives to helping people in need.

A couple weeks ago I contacted my friend Andrew (one of those people who radiates kindness, is a good person to the very core and gives more of himself than he keeps) to see if he needed any volunteer help with one of the numerous projects he takes on.  He told me to meet him at a tiny church just west of Bathurst on Queen on December 17th to help with their Saturday night free meal, a place he and his wife Steph used to help out at regularly when they lived in the area.

Every Saturday at 5:30 pm, the Toronto Alliance Church provides a free meal (tonight’s was soup, salad, banana and cookies); clothing rooms where those attending can pick out five items (hats, mittens, pants, shoes, shirts, etc); a food bank; a prayer room; and a nurse who cleans their feet, looks for pressure sores and athletes feet, and helps with any other problems they might be having.  The space isn’t huge, but they feed and help a large number of those in need – some homeless, some not.  I would say there were at least twenty volunteers there helping with everything from preparing the food, to serving, to helping in the clothing and food bank rooms, to cleaning.

The door to the Toronto Alliance Church is hard to find.  I almost walked past it.  Andrew and Steph asked me if I had any questions before we walked up the twenty or so steps into a medium-sized room bustling with people, food and energy.  They told me that most likely there would be enough volunteers to help serve food, and what was really needed is people to just sit and chat with those having a free meal.  A lot of the people there are looking for some company.  I was a little nervous.

After a tour of the operation, Steph went to help in the prayer room and Andrew and I wandered in to the dining area to find some seats.  I have to admit, I didn’t know how to react.  Andrew knew a few of the people there and was chatting with them.  I just stood there feeling slightly out of place.  I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how.

Then we sat down and I found out what I was there for.  I was there just to chat, hang out, connect, ask questions and just be there.  The more I felt comfortable, the more I found out.  These are interesting people.  The man across from me was writing his autobiography.  Another man at the table told me the scientific reason why cranberries are good for your urinary tract.  Another was an incredible harmonica player and blues singer (although a little crazy too).  A few of them gave me a hard time about being too sweet.

Then there was the woman sitting next to me.  In her late-sixties and Ukrainian, she warmed up to me as we chatted.  Sometimes we talked about her grandchildren in the Ukraine.  Sometimes about her bachelor apartment on Jane St. and her old job as a housekeeper at a seniors home.  Sometimes we just sat in silence because of our language barrier.  She told me about how she might have to have an operation, but her heart is bad and she is scared.  We talked about how she’s trying to decide if she will go back to the Ukraine where her family is.  She hugged and kissed me when she left.

It’s for people like her, and those other men that these programs are so important.  A community, a free meal, clothing, care and companionship.  I feel grateful I could be a small part of it for a day.

The church is looking to get a bigger space so they can help more people, but it’s an uphill battle.  They need millions of dollars raised to buy a new building and with a small church congregation, it is hard.  If anyone deserves money, it’s these people.  The Pastor Bill and his wife Donna are wonderful, kind people who devote their energy every day to fostering a community and connecting with the people in their area (an area which is full of homeless).  The church’s mission is to “restore broken lives”.  Although I am not religious in the same sense as these amazing people, I can’t say enough about what they are doing here.

Donna has also written a book, Confessions of a Not-So-Average Girl, which just got published.  It helps young women deal with alcoholic and neglectful parents – a story she grew up in herself.

Tonight has inspired me to do more volunteering on a regular basis for valuable groups such as this one, and get my butt on the front line.