Since I have found myself with some extra time, I decided I would try and live up to a promise I made to a former co-worker and someone I still consider to be a mentor in how to be in radio and frankly, in life.
Friday morning, I made a call down to the Hope Mission. When I worked at CISN, as it still is today, the Hope Mission became a cornerstone for the year. Every Thanksgiving, they would devise creative ways to try and draw attention to the issue of homelessness while raising money. While it is a shelter, the Hope is also a rehabilitation facility, youth shelter and truly, a first step in the right direction for those who are looking to take it.
Knowing that their annual Thanksgiving Dinner was coming up that day, I thought I would see if they needed any help. Like any event, there is usually a strong interest as word gets out, but soon, numbers dwindle due to other commitments, etc. After speaking to Erin, the volunteer coordinator, she told me that they had a spot and to come down around 3:45.
Once I arrived, I aproned up and got ready to work. I wasn't there for any other reason but to work, which was refreshing. I found out my job would be to be one of the food platers. The way it works is that each station is in charge of two rows of tables (each row seating about 60-70 people). Those food plates are then given to another wave of volunteers, the servers, who deliver it to the Edmontonians who are there for the meal.
Setting the table is something I don't do at home. in an effort to make it feel that much more special, place settings were laid out for 250 people a sitting. Pretty standard... a couple of cups for coffee and juice, a little candy bar as a pre/post meal treat, cutlery, salt & pepper, coffee fixings and cutlery. Pumpkin pie or cheesecakes were the desserts prepared for our guests, along with a meal that was tirelessly prepared by the cooks, mostly all that day.
I found myself with a box full of miniature Caramilk bars, placing one per spot... I couldn't help but think that in a few weeks I will be doing the same thing for trick or treaters that come to my door. Talk about a contrast in lifestyles.
Once the places were set, the doors would open, and to the sounds of music from the Mission band, our dinner guests were welcomed in, given a seat, and patiently awaited their meal.
As I stood at my station, I watched as many of the people - some of which clearly hadn't eaten in a while - sit at their placings and understandably begin their meal with their dessert that was already waiting. After the first seating was settled, a blessing was given over the meal, and we began plating the food.
With two groups around 250 people each, portioning is key. One of the chefs came out and gave us instructions on how much food they figured could be a part of each plate to satisfy our guests and still have enough to serve the second group coming in.
What followed was a flurry of plates coming my way. Earning the nickname "Turkey Mike" from my young team member "Gravy Girl", we managed to get our first group of plates dished up and handed out.
The menu, while the same for everyone, was a formidable feast. Mashed Potatoes, Stuffing, Turkey and Mixed Veg, with gravy, cranberry sauce, accompanied by a dinner roll and Caesar salad... quite comparable to what most of us probably have planned for our own dinners with family and friends.
As we watched the people enjoying their meals, sharing stories, and no doubt comparing their days with one another, what stood out most was how happy the environment was. For years, the Hope Mission have used the slogan, "Hope begins with a meal". During those previous radio campaigns, I had said it before, and I had witnessed first hand the transformation people who have walked through the door have made, but I was never there first hand to see the impact of a hungry person taking a first bite of a meal.
Many of those who were finishing their meals would come up to us and thank us for volunteering - so much gratitude for 3 and a half hours of my time... I felt unworthy.
I then went from food plater back to busboy. In the spirit of some of the best servers I've ever had in a restaurant, I was sure not to rush the ones who were still enjoying their meal... selfishly because I knew that once they were finished, they would be back out on the streets.
Like a flurry of worker-bees, we all started grabbing things to re-set the tables. Now that we had a first sitting under our belts, we were ready for action. Within 10 minutes, the doors opened, and more guests filled the auditorium of the Hope Mission.
There was one standout in this grouping. A woman that I didn't know at all, but recognized instantly. As she walked in, she fought to hold her head up, and keep the lump out of her throat. She didn't look at anyone, except for her son who I would have guessed was no older than 10.
My Mom and I were never "poor" when I was growing up - at least, if we were, I never knew it. Looking back, I knew we had our challenges, but Mom did whatever she had to do to take care of me. That was the same look I saw on that woman as she sat her son down for their Thanksgiving supper.
We live in a part of the world where the issue of homelessness and people living on the street is a polarizing issue.
To play the devils' advocate, there is a large portion of society that easily dismisses the homeless as those who need to shape up and play the game like everybody else.
One of the first groups we served were from the "Breakout Program". These are people who have been fed the meals, and one day, for whatever reason, asked the Mission for a chance to move forward. Whether it was overcoming an addiction or finding their own direction in life, these people are on their way out, and back into our city as productive, contributing members of our communities. They are the reason the Hope Mission is there, and why we as a city should be thankful.
I don't tell you this story to try and make you think I'm a good person - and I'm not a fan of the "humble-brag".
Whatever the circumstances were that brought them in the door, there wasn't one person I encountered who felt entitled or demanded a dinner. Not one person I saw were particularly proud to be taking a handout, or trying to do anything more than survive.
What I did see were people who are trying to figure it out. Whether it's something as complicated as Mental Illness, or something as simple as being lost and unable to catch a break, it was apparent that there is "hope".
For more about the Hope Mission, including how to volunteer for a number of things, please visit www.hopemission.com