Every Friday residents in Scarborough make their way down to the recreation room in their building, lining up in front of the community kitchen. Some stand quietly in the back while others socialize with neighbours, catching up on the latest news.
Residents line up in the building's recreation room for a tasty lunch.
Meanwhile, the scene inside the kitchen is a bit more hectic. A team of volunteers from St. Peter's Mission are busy heating up food, searching for ingredients, setting out plates, and delegating roles.
Volunteers prepare today's meal – cheesy pasta and Caesar salad.
At 12:30 p.m., the kitchen door swings open and it's finally time to eat!
The line moves quickly, serving plates of hot food to a growing crowd of hungry residents. Today's menu includes cheesy pasta, Caesar salad and Freezies for dessert.
At first glance, this may seem like just another free lunch program. It isn't.
Kids, families, seniors all gather to share a meal with friends and neighbours.
"Lunch is a way to draw people in," say Krista, a mental health case manager from Cota. "Many people shy away from getting help due to stigma, they don't want other people to see that they're seeking help. So offering a hot, healthy meal is a great way to get people to take that first step."
At every lunch, staff from social support services including
Fred Victor are available to offer critical mental health and social support to those who want it. Support staff like Krista and Bijan, a mental health case worker from Fred Victor, connect residents to a variety of local resources, including access to health care, mental health support and financial advice.
"I've linked residents to family doctors or to
The Access Point a centralized point where individuals can receive individual mental health and addictions support] to get them in contact with a community case manager. We've been helping a lot of residents fill out tax forms or annual rent review forms and helping them get all the documents prepared," say Krista.
The team has also set-up a private room where residents can speak with a case manager one-on-one.
The idea for a lunch program started last fall when the Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities identified the need for more support in the Kingston-Galloway community. They enlisted the support of several partners including Cota, East Scarborough Storefront, Fred Victor and the Canadian Mental Health Association. East Scarborough Storefront also connected a group of volunteers from St. Peter's Mission to the program. The program began in February and the group met monthly to support and improve the program. Today, it's grown to serve almost 70 residents each week.
Building trust takes time
Every meal is an opportunity to discover how to help someone. Those who are isolated, misunderstood or have mobility limitations, need help to access local services.
The first time Krista said 'hello' to Bob*, he didn't say much, "Bob kept to himself, spoke under his breath, was very angry and would lash out at people all the time. He didn't appear to have many friends."
"We started the gardening program in the building and through that, he sort of became interested in taking part and I got to know his name," she continues.
Krista learned that he lost his wallet. He needed help replacing his health card and other I.D. So, Krista helped him get in touch with an I.D. clinic and Ontario Works to help get his finances back in order.
Through regular chats, Krista found out that he was having seizures and didn't have medication or a doctor so she connected him to health services in the area.
"Now every week, I meet with him for about 30 minutes and you can see in his eyes that he is just so thankful that somebody is taking the time to help him. I've also learned that the reason he's lashing out is because he has a brain injury so he isn't able to process things as quickly as everyone else," says Krista, "Without this program, he would just keep on doing what he's doing and wouldn't get the help that he needs."
Serving food from the heart
A group of dedicated volunteers from St. Peter's Mission prepare home-cooked meals each week. They prepare from the food provided by the food bank program run by Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities and even buy food out of pocket at times.
Volunteers from St. Peter's Mission prepare the day's meal.
"Normally, we'll supply everything, cook it and serve it," said Nagaty, a volunteer who often brings his wife and kids to help serve food to residents. "We have a chef who prepares the food for free and he often stays up until 3 a.m. helping to cook the food for Friday," he says.
"When we started, we would normally prepare four trays of food for the lunch service. Today we served nine trays of food and we've almost run out of food," he says pointing to an empty tray of pasta.
Nagaty offers today's dessert: Freezies!
For Nagaty, the program is about more than just a free meal.
"It's about talking to people, learning about their lives, hearing their stories," says Nagaty. "The first couple of weeks people were a bit shy and didn't really want to talk. But as the weeks have gone by, we've really become like a family – we joke together, we ask about each other's families, we have memories. They know us now and have slowly let us in. Some people share where they came from, what they've accomplished, they talk about their kids and families – it's fantastic. And then the counsellors come around and offer support to those who need it," describes Nagaty.
The program is an example of how many partners can come together to make a more powerful impact on the lives of residents when working together and not alone.
"Without programs like this, people fall through the cracks and people's voices don't get heard. Often people feel frustrated and let down, thinking that no one is ever really going to help them," says Krista.
Residents gather together in the building's recreation room for lunch.
The program was meant to run until August. However, because of the overwhelming receptiveness from the community, the partners plan to continue the program while they work on funding proposals to keep it alive.
"We need more support staff – staff from the City, a nurse, case managers, mental health support, addiction support," say Krista. "It could be even bigger and help develop a real sense of community for those who need it the most."
*Pseudonyms have been used to protect identities
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