The Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News has been shining a light on the people in our community who help those living on the streets, putting the focus on those who volunteer with no remuneration, out of simple love of their common man. These stories are the third and final instalment in the series.
Before his death in 2010, Robert Mitchell’s passion for helping homeless people built a foundation for a regular Saturday night community dinner in Haney, and a community of people who help those living on the streets.
Mitchell worked at a machine shop on 223rd Street near Beckett Park, the former site of the Anita Place Tent City. Back in 2004, he would cook for people living on the street. He, and wife Teri, lived in an apartment nearby.
“He would wheel his barbecue all the way down the street from our house, and we’d do barbecues,” Teri recalled.
“He always had a heart for people on the street. He was an alcoholic, with 25 years in recovery.”
They would go into the shop and plug in a coffee maker, and the pair would stand outside with the barbecue, flipping burgers and turning hotdogs. Eventually it would draw a crowd.
“We had a friend who as an RCMP officer who lived in our building who would volunteer there as well,” recalled Teri.
The police on patrol would stop by for a coffee and burger, mingling with the homeless people.
“They could have probably arrested every single person standing there,” Teri said with a laugh.
She doesn’t remember her husband having a set schedule for the dinners, other than “every opportunity he could.”
Soon the nearby CEED Centre allowed the Mitchells to host dinners there. When the machine shop sold, Mitchell asked executive director Christian Cowley if they could cross the street to use their parking lot for barbecues. Instead, Cowley invited them inside, and soon the event grew to a buffet dinner that hosted between 60 and 120 people.
The Mitchells had been supporting the dinners out of their own pocket, but as it grew, they got the help of their church, St. George’s Anglican.
“At that time, there were very few offerings of food,” said Cowley. “It was a really important thing. But the most important thing was the community it created.”
The CEED centre was asked to stop hosting the dinner, and the Golden Ears United Church soon became the host. Volunteers still meet there every Saturday. It is a multi-faith group that supports the dinners, with St. Luke’s Catholic Church providing everything on the third Saturday of each month.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they would host about 100 to 125 people every Saturday night in the church hall, with 12-15 volunteers there for a couple of hours. They serve pork loin, roast beef, baked salmon, lots of pastas – with a rule of thumb being “anything you would serve your family.”
And the volunteers from St. George’s would make sandwiches – 15 loaves of bread worth – for diners to take away with them.
“Some are seniors who want the company, some are low income, and a lot of them are homeless,” Teri said of those who come out for the Saturday meals.
At Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, the volunteers offer a turkey dinner with all the trimmings – with table service, rather than doing the typical cafeteria style.
Through the pandemic, they have not been able to host a dinner inside, and their number of meals has fallen. But on Saturday, they offered 29 meals to go. Brownies is a regular contributor of chicken, and they also had chili, a rice dish, and more.
There was also a table full of soap, socks and toiletries for people to take as needed.
“If we make a difference in one person’s life that day, it’s worth it,” said Teri.
She said they have become friends with the people who come for a dinner.
“It’s about building relationships, and letting them know that someone cares about them – that’s the most important thing for all of us.”
Kyl wheeled her walker to the church for dinner on Saturday, and said how much she appreciates the volunteers.
“They’re really hard-working people, dedicated, and it’s nice the way they talk to you. They treat you like a human being,” she said. “It helps with your mental health, and that.”
She’s on a “very limited” income, tries to stretch it as far as she can, and is happy to get leftovers in a to-go container when she can.
“I’m one of the lucky ones. I still have a roof over my head,” Kyl explained.
Volunteering is a tough job to quit, said Teri. She admits she’s twice “retired” from her coordinator position. Once she came back to make sure the job got done. The second time, she went to see the minister to discuss passing on the job to a new coordinator.
“I left here after our meeting and I was still the coordinator, but I had a lovely prayer shawl that went with it,” she recalled. “She was smooth.”
Teri has a co-coordinator in Lynn Rajala. She makes runs to grocery stores, organizes soaps and toiletry packages, is generally a “huge help,” and together the two women share the load of organizing.
Rob Williams has been working at the community dinners for about seven years, and Jean Ruttan for six.
They help every Saturday night, and if you ask them why, their answer just comes down to their core beliefs.
“You’re helping people – those less fortunate,” said Jean matter-of-factly.
“I just like helping out people, and making sure they’re healthy,” echoed Williams.
They had a volunteer who was in her 90s, recalled Teri.
“She could barely walk, but there she was, out there making sandwiches.”
Some volunteers are living paycheque to paycheque themselves, but they consider themselves fortunate, said Teri, and they enjoy helping.
“We’re so blessed, and it doesn’t take much to help someone.”
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