With her long blonde hair, sunglasses and a big smile, Jackie sat on her walker beside her friend, in line for dinner outside St. Mary’s Cathedral Hall in Calgary. She’s come for Sunday dinner at Feed the Hungry for a decade.
“The people are nice, the meals are good and sometimes I don’t like sitting at home by myself because I live alone,” said the mother of one grown son. The 59-year-old jokes that most people think she looks too young to have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Jackie lives in a downtown apartment, getting by with help from her disability payments. She uses a walker because of her unsteady balance due to Parkinson’s disease and tremors. And a history of being abused has left her with debilitating anxiety and stress.
Jackie was one of the 557 people served a warm meal on the last Sunday in May. On average, 500 people are served a four-course meal 48 Sundays per year. To keep the meal running smoothly, it takes about 100 volunteers, six part-time paid assistant coordinators and one full-time paid program manager. Anyone can sponsor a Sunday dinner for $5,000 — a parish, school, company, family or individual.
A group of parishioners piloted the idea on Easter Sunday 1993, and it has been running continuously ever since. This year marks their 25th anniversary. The outreach has been sustained simply through word of mouth, and all these years later word is still getting around.
“People are still walking through this door in what is supposed to be this rich, affluent city,” said Sartre Jean-Gilles, Feed the Hungry program manager. “We really don’t survey our guests, but most of them are definitely homeless or working poor. It’s just people trying to make ends meet.
“Anybody is welcome at Feed the Hungry. I would really like neighbours to come have a meal and see what’s going on in their neighbourhood. I think a lot of people shy away from it because it’s a validation of the situation they are in. I don’t think a lot of people would want to come if they didn’t have to.”
Lining the sidewalk between St. Mary’s Cathedral and Hall was a crowd diverse in age, sex and nationality. A separate section in St. Mary’s parking lot was reserved for women, families, people with mobility issues and the elderly.
Jessica, her boyfriend Chris, and her two children aged 7 and 8 found out about the dinner five years ago through word of mouth. They come when times are tight. The couple is on disability payments; Chris for bipolar and a brain injury and Jessica manages life with fetal alcohol syndrome.
“It’s hard for me to be reliable and stable, to be committed to work with my FAS. I have tried over the years. We just find it very useful when we do come (to Feed the Hungry). It’s good food and service. I feel safe here.”
Emily Kennedy, a social worker and Feed the Hungry assistant coordinator, said not to underestimate the value of a reliable meal, served with a smile in a safe and hospitable space.
“It’s so important to have a place to come together as a community and experience the dignity that might be missing in a shelter,” said Kennedy. “It’s not just about feeding someone, it’s about giving someone happiness and hope in their day.”
And it’s not just a meaningful outreach for the dinner guests. David Holy often makes time on a Sunday to volunteer with his family because serving with Feed the Hungry has been so enriching for him.
“You see the face of Christ here,” said Holy pausing a moment from his table service duty. “With these people, you are truly serving Christ. Selfishly, I probably get more out of this experience than the people I serve do. It feels good to serve and I feel like Christ showers me with blessings.”
Holy wanted his son-in-law Lewis Cutter to have the Feed the Hungry experience while he was in Calgary visiting from Spokane, Washington. And the timing worked out well since this particular meal was low on volunteers.
“People are nicer, kinder than how they come across or you may build up in your head,” said Cutter, a first time volunteer. “It puts your own gifts from God in perspective; things you have afforded in your everyday, like a hot meal. One positive experience like this and it makes me want to do it more. It’s a life-giving experience.”
When a dinner is short staffed, Dana Colborne comes to the rescue. For over a decade, this mother of four has been on the call-out list, coming in last minute to ensure there are enough volunteers. For the last two months, she’s served every Sunday.
“I love to cook. I love feeding people. I thoroughly enjoy visiting with the people that come here and find out their story. And I feel good that they are getting a good meal at least once a week.”
Jean-Gilles encourages anyone interested in a meal, volunteering or sponsorship to check out the website feedthehungrycalgary.ca. This program depends on funds from our Together In Action, annual appeal.
“We are always looking for sponsors and volunteers, especially in the summer. This is a year-round thing,” said Jean-Gilles. “I see these people leaving the hall and I know they are going to be hungry in eight hours. It’s just such a basic need.”
Written by Sara Francis
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Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers