There’s good news and bad news in our town along the Fraser.
The good news is there’s lots of people here looking after each other.
The bad news is there’s more folks to look after in Maple Ridge than we imagine.
Let’s begin with a big plus. It’s the community dinner that takes place in the CEED Centre building on 223rd Street on Saturday evenings. It’s the street ministry work of volunteers, mostly from St. George’s Anglican Church. They make soups, casseroles, and caldrons of hot coffee for anyone in the Ghetto who’s hungry.
Bill Pearson, a principal in this effort, tells me the huge stack of sandwiches was made by an 83-year-old woman whose helper is 89.
Robert Mitchell, a one-time church deacon who lived and worked here, started all this some time ago. Before he died of brain cancer in 2010, Mitchell walked the streets, handing out sandwiches he made while dreaming of doing more. You can’t find anybody here who doesn’t miss him.
“His goal was to find a place where people could sit around a table and feel like our friends,” says Teri, Mitchell’s wife and a dinner coordinator. “Since we moved here, it’s been unbelievable. Robert would have been happy if that’s as far as the program went.”
That’s good news. It helps to be inside a cozy building as the weather worsens, eating food prepared by people who could be watching Wheel of Fortune on TV, but are here instead.
Rick Smith and Sue Elliot fill plates with spaghetti and baked beans someone delivered in crock pots. Tonight, they’ll run out before everyone in the line is served. I ask Rick and Sue what brings them here.
“The dinner is the highlight of my week,” Smith says. “I can’t wait ’til Saturday night. I walk away feeling a better person.”
Elliot finds comfort in the feedback she hears from the people who come through the door. “One of them,” she recalls, “told me this was the only place where she really feels respected. That’s a big reward for me.”
I heard the same thing from Cindy, another regular volunteer who asked me to man the coffee urn so she could talk to guests and get to know them better. Later, I spoke to Natasha as she sat with a plate on her lap. “I’m low-income,” she explains. “This program has helped me out, and the chilli [baked beans] is really sweet.”
Natasha asked Bill if she could help out in any way. Someone else mows the lawn here now. Giving back builds a community.
The bad news? “We’ve gone from 30 when we started this in July to 100 now,” Teri says. “It’s heartbreaking to see so many struggling.”
Many wear the signs of substance abuse. Others don’t fit any stereotype.
“The clientele has changed,” says Teri. “These people are all on limited incomes. Less than a handful have steady jobs, and not good paying ones. There are people here who live in trucks, and cars, or sleep on couches. There are others who live in camps; there’s quite a few camps out there.”
Melody is another regular volunteer who believes everyone deserves a helping hand. “We’re all precious,” she told me when I asked what brings here to the Dinner Program. And, “Robert asked me to get involved,” she adds.
Robert Mitchell, a recovered alcoholic, inspired a lot of people here. There’s a story Teri tells about him that helps explain this.
“Robert understood what it was like to be destitute; when nobody wants anything to do with you. He’d take $40 from our bank account every day to buy someone a meal, get the tools a man needed if that got him a job, provide bus fair for someone who had to get to a clinic.”
“One night,” continues Teri, “we got a phone call one from a neighbour who said there was a young woman needing help curled up against the wall of our shop [motor repairs]. Robert drove her to the Cordova Detox Centre in Vancouver. Seven months later, we got a knock on the door.”
“It was her. She said, ‘You helped me. I wanted to tell you I’m clean now. I’m working, and I’ve reconnected with my family. I just wanted to ask if there’s anything I can do for you now.’”
There was. “Robert told her there was a car wash the next day to raise money for his street ministry. She showed up at 9 a.m. and stayed until one with a sign in her hand, directing people in.”
Two motorists had a special reason to get a car wash – the woman’s father and brother. “Each handed Robert a hundred dollar bill. They said, ‘Thank you for bringing our family together again.’”
Lines from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d … It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.”
• The St. George Community Dinner at the CEED Centre needs food and volunteers. If you can help, contact Bill at email@example.com.
Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.