Community Meal Christmas Dinners

Here are a few pictures from our Christmas Meal on Dec 11, 2012.   This year, we held two Christmas dinners, to try to accommodate everyone comfortably and avoid long lineups.    Dec 11 was primarily aimed at families with children and Dec 18 was open to everyone.  On Dec 11, thirty-four children attended, aged 8 months to 16 years.   We had gifts for every child, and a very special visitor to hand them out: Santa Claus.   Wonderful food (turkey with all the trimmins plus fresh baked mince tarts and ice cream), music courtesy of Jackie, Dalton, Trinity and Kris-Ann.  A good time had by all.

Sorry, no pictures of Santa -- camera batteries ran out.

Some of our many dedicated volunteers.  Top row: Marty trying out Santa's chair, Dick.Next row standing: Riseley, Karen, Pat, Cliff, Ken, Michael, Patrick, Hermine, Glenna.  Seated: Anne, Renee, Jackie, Anna, Grace.  Many others helped out that night who missed the photo, including Peter, Hugh, Rose, Margaret, Westley, Larry, Karen, Tom, Danny, Richard, Tessa, Olivia, Melissa, Lorraine, Skylar, the Steveston Rotary club, Alex, Ann and maybe a few more I forgot

Santa's big chair with all the presents around the tree.  Most of the presents supplied by Santa's helpers at St Anne Anglican in Richmond.  The remainder from St Alban Community Meal.

The Events Committee did a great job of the tables: beautiful centerpieces, red and green tablecloths, festive napkins and an orange and candy cane for everyone.  Oranges and candy canes donated by the Richmond Food Bank.

Turkeys getting carved up by Steveston Rotary members, part of the team who served the meal.

Volunteer Training Workshop

Wed, Sept 26, we hosted a volunteer training workshop at the Richmond Food Bank.    The workshop familiarized volunteers with the community we serve, with an emphasis on communications, conflict resolution, mental health and addictions.

It was an excellent session, featuring five different speakers from local Richmond addictions and mental health organizations.

The session was originally aimed at volunteers for the new drop-in centre at St Alban, but we decided the workshop would be extremely valuable to volunteers from organizations which target the same population as the drop-in centre.  So, we opened up the invite to volunteers from the Food Bank, where each week over 500 families file through this same room to pick up their groceries,  the weekly Community Meal, where over 150 folks are served dinner each week and the Extreme Weather Shelter at St Alban where dozens are given a warm place to sleep and hot meals each winter.

In all, over fifty volunteers filled the room and were treated to five excellent, heartfelt presentations from our guest speakers:

Barbara Bawlf - Vancouver Coastal Health/Richmond Mental Health Consumers and Friends
Rick Dubras - Richmond Addiction Services
Barbara Fee  - Canadian Mental Health Association
Danny Taylor - Richmond Addiction Services
Randy Vance - Vancouver Coastal Health

The evening was filled with compassion and warmth, something we hope our guests will feel at the Community Meal.

Our fifteenth season is underway

Last Tuesday, we started our fifteenth consecutive season serving meals to the community in the hall of St Alban.    As in past years, we had shut down for the summer months (we are basically open during the school year), but many people must have marked their calendars when service would resume as we served meals to 160 hungry people.

It was great to see familiar faces from past years and some people who are new.  All were treated to a fine meal of pasta with meat or veggie sauce, caesar salad, garlic toast and a fantastic blueberry desert made from blueberries picked fresh that same day by Grace (one of the kitchen helpers) from the fields of Richmond.  

The weather was fine and four people enjoyed their meal on the picnic table in the back garden.

A great start to the year and we look forward to serving many more fine meals to many fine people.

Appreciating our volunteers

We wouldn't have a meal without our wonderful volunteers, some of whom have been with the meal since day one, and as we are about to enter our fifteenth season, that's dedication!  And to keep our team vibrant and growing, we are fortunate to have new volunteers join us each year.    Every volunteer is a special member of the team and is much appreciated.   To say thanks, we organize an annual volunteer appreciation dinner to close off the season.  This year, we had a Hawaiian theme, with great decorations and door prizes arranged by our events team, fantastic food and a live band that really added to the festive atmosphere.   Thanks to all who helped out at this special meal and a  special thanks to all the volunteers who helped out this past season.  

Thanks VanCity Richmond

VanCity has a well-deserved reputation for community involvement -- among their many awards, they were ranked in the top 50 Corporate Citizens in Canada, ranked #2 on the list, in fact.    They are also known as the country's largest Credit Union, but it's people who make VanCity special and our local Richmond branch is a longtime supporter of the Community Meal, with individuals from the branch volunteering their time to serve.  VanCity is also a financial supporter of the meal, so we thank them doubly for their support.   

Rotary Club of Richmond Sunrise

Richmond Sunrise Rotary, pictured above are our longstanding last-Tuesday-of-the-month servers and we greatly appreciate their continued support of the St Alban Community Meal.  Of course the Rotary clubs of Richmond are well known for their generosity in the community and to learn a little more about the Sunrise Rotary, have a look at their website and facebook pages, here:  Richmond Sunrise website and here: Sunrise Rotary Facebook page

Say cheese

I've had a hard time convincing our camera-shy kitchen crew to stop working long enough to take their picture, but managed this week.  I neglected to tell them to "say cheese" but they smiled anyway - they're a pretty jolly bunch.   Had I thought of it I would have told them "say mac and cheese" because that's what they were preparing for the night's meal.  On the table you can see about a dozen platters of macaroni and Grace is holding a big bowl of grated cheese to be added.  Ahhh, mac and cheese: I couldn't imagine a more comforting meal on a wet, chilly spring day, except perhaps the ham dinner the week before, or Rose's fabled meat loaf the week before that or ... well, I think all the Community Meals are comforting.

By the way, I was curious about the origin of the "say cheese" expression and what words people might use in other languages to encourage smiles, so looked online  and wikipedia (sometimes a reliable source) lists the following:

Bulgaria: "say cabbage"
China: "say eggplant"
Denmark: "say orange"
Iran: "say apple"
Spain: "say potato"
Sweden: "say omelette"

Interesting that these are all foods.  Maybe that explains why the kitchen crew is always smiling.

Try it, you'll like it

Whenever someone asks about volunteering, I usually suggest they drop in and attend a meal as a guest to see firsthand how things work, feel the atmosphere, see who comes through the doors, listen to the conversations around the dozen plus dinner tables, see firsthand the good works of the Community Meal.  And, of course, enjoy a tasty meal served up with a smile.

A couple folks from Richmond Presbyterian Church (No. 2 Rd and Granville) who I knew as volunteers from the St Alban Extreme Weather  Shelter asked about the possibility of their church serving one night as a group.  I said sure, so they did and found it to be an enjoyable and enriching experience, so have signed up for a total of five nights this year.

Welcome, folks.  Glad to have you part of our Community Meal team.  By the way, in the photo below, two people from the Church also volunteer at the shelter at St Alban and two volunteer at the Food Bank, so a very caring and active bunch.

Sad realities

One of the sad realities of our fair city is that perfectly good homes are being demolished, trucked away to the dump and replaced with opulent boundary busting megahomes.   This has fueled skyrocketing housing prices and has also fueled some resentment towards those held responsible for these trends:  wealthy offshore buyers, specifically from China.  This has resulted in a common generalization that Richmondites of Chinese origin are wealthy.

From my observations at the Community Meal and out in the streets of Richmond, this generalization is wrong and an example of another sad reality.  Sure there are loads of Mercedes with Asians at the wheel, but I also see loads of elderly Chinese folks riding bicycles, some loaded down with empties they've managed to scrounge.  I see Chinese men and women delivering newspapers and flyers, I see them get on the bus loaded down with groceries.  And I see them line up at the Food Bank and at the Community Meals.

I've taken the opportunity to chat with some who join us at the Community Meal at St Alban.  

One of our regulars is a woman with a young daughter  and when I saw her last week I asked how her day went.  She said she's looking for a job and hopes to find work in a food court or restaurant.  She's a single Mom who lost her job a while back and her EI has run out.   But she hastened to add that she and her daughter are happy -- you don't need much money to have a good and happy life.

A young family that just recently started attending the meal from China and the father has found work but not in his profession.  He's trained as an Engineer but has found work as a production worker in a factory for not much more than minimum wage.  He doesn't like his job, but needs to keep it to provide for his family.

It's tough being a newly arrived immigrant, struggling to speak the language and adapt to new customs, but it must be especially tough to arrive in a country, with no job and very little money and be faced with a local population with the distorted view about Chinese and wealth, some who even question their presence at a Community Meal.

All are welcome at our Community Meal and that's one of the realities that makes Richmond a great place to live.

Thank-you, Richmond Parks and Recreation

Members of the Parks and Rec team from the city of Richmond served up great food and smiles to an appreciative crowd of Tuesday night guests.

Last but not least

The dining hall at St Aban really comes to life during the weekly Community Meal.  It transforms rapidly from a quiet, empty hall into one bustling with activity:  chattering people, clattering plates, announcements over the PA system, people filing up to the serving area, back to their tables, eating, up for a coffee, servers coming round with seconds, then dessert. After the meal, people empty and stack their plates, then file out, and our hall volunteers rush around stacking chairs, rolling away tables, then they file out and almost as rapidly the hall is returned back to its pre-meal state: quiet and empty.

Well, it may be empty but it's not exactly quiet because the adjacent kitchen is buzzing with noisy and steamy activity as our kitchen clean up crew tackles the gargantuan task of cleaning up after everyone.  And with a typical meal serving over 150 people, it's a huge job, especially since most of it is done by hand.  A team of eight or so volunteers tackle this each week, washing all the pots and pans and dishes and cutlery, by hand, loading them into trays, running them  through the sanitizing machine, drying them off, again by hand, then putting them all back where they belong.  They are the last volunteers standing each night, and the work they do is such an essential part of the Community Meal and we thank them all very much.


Service with a smile

Each week volunteers don gloves, aprons and smiles and serve up a great meal to our guests.    Our servers often come as a group: service clubs like the Richmond Sunshine Rotary and Steveston Rotary each take one Tuesday a month and local organizations like the city of Richmond, Richmond Funeral Home and Vancity also book evenings during the year.  The remaining nights our volunteers who have set up the hall, or worked in the kitchen step in to serve.

Last week, pictured above, we had a blend of volunteers from the city of Richmond Parks and Recreations and Public Works (including one who drives a snow plow for the city) along with some of our newest volunteers: Olivia, Mei, Joe, Risely and Kurt.    Many of our volunteers have already put in a hard day at work, so spending another couple hours volunteering to prepare or serve food,  set up tables or clean up afterwards, is really appreciated.

So, thank you volunteers for your service to our guests and to our community.  It's heartwarming to see people from the local community offering service to their neighbours, sharing a meal and exchanging smiles.

Cheque day

Last night, we didn't get even close to filling the hall, our  lowest number in a long time. This was especially strange since is was the day before "cheque day" (the last Wednesday of each month) when people on social assistance receive their monthly allowance.    Most folks are pretty well flat broke for a few days before cheque day.

The meal isn't exclusively for low income people -- we welcome everyone, regardless of their background, income or age -- but there are many who depend on their monthly social assistance cheque or pension cheque, and our weekly meals, to get them through the month. 

Imagine if your only income consisted of a single cheque once a month.  For many, the cheque is for  $235 and this has to cover all their expenses (except lodging): food, clothing, transportation, phone, etc etc.   If you have a place to rent, you get an additional  $375 per month.   Try finding something in Richmond for $375.  You can read more about the social assistance rates here: Social assistance rates.  A Surrey MLA, Jagrup Brar, has taken the challenge of living for one month (this past month of January) on the social assistance rates.   His blog is here: MLA Welfare Challenge

It's a pleasure and privilege to be part of the St Alban Community Meal team, to be able to offer great food each week to whoever comes to our door.  For many, it's the most nourishing and tastiest meal they've had in a while.   And for those on social assistance, it's become a real lifeline.

Golden Tickets

Recently, we started a new process to help streamline seating at the meal: as each person comes through the door, we hand them a yellow, numbered meal ticket.   This allows us to keep track of how full the hall is getting (the hall holds 124 people), how fast it's filling up (good information to the kitchen), which seats are still empty, etc.

We had to explain to each person what the ticket was for.  Some thought it was their pre-assigned table number (we have open seating).  Others thought it meant  the hall was full and this was their place on the waitlist  (we've handed out numbers in the past just for this purpose).   No, it was simply a ticket they could exchange for their meal, or place on their seat to hold their spot while they wandered off somewhere.  It worked really well and we did it again this week.

At some point, we started calling them Golden tickets as we handed them out.   Golden tickets were featured in one of my daughter's favourite childhood stories and movie: Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  In the story, a golden ticket was hidden inside one of five randomly selected Wonka chocolate bars.   Whoever discovered one of these five tickets won a fantastic prize: touring the chocolate factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate.   It led to some interesting behaviour.  Spoiler alert: For example, a rich Dad bought thousands of bars to ensure his  daughter got a ticket.  And one of the poorest children in the land managed to get a ticket.

Here at the meal, everyone gets the same golden ticket, regardless of income, beliefs, age or appearance.   And everyone gets the same prize: a hot, tasty meal cooked and served with love.  And, since the meal's been going strong for over a decade, you could say we're offering a lifetime supply of fresh, hot Tuesday meals at St Alban.  And I'm sure if people ask nicely, we'd even offer up a tour of our little Community Meal factory.

Christmas Dinner

The lineup outside the front doors stretched way down the sidewalk to the church on Tuesday 13 December.  The crowd was in a festive mood -- tonight was the annual Christmas dinner at the St Alban Community Meal.

The doors opened at 5 pm, and from the moment our guests entered, they were treated to a very special evening.   Just inside the door, each adult was offered a gift (Santa came later for the kids).  They had their choice of a huge bottle of shampoo, a bag of cookies, a tube of toothpaste or a box of crackers.   It was interesting to see who chose what -- most went immediately for the giant shampoo bottle, others quickly snagged a bag of cookies and some took a little time deciding before carefully selecting.

Next, with gift in hand, they moved through the double doors into the hall.  What a spectacle greeted them: each table with its green or red table cloth, Christmas napkins and a beautiful centerpiece, and at the far end, up on the stage, a large Christmas tree lit up with a thousand lights.

We knew we wouldn't be able to seat everyone, even though up extra tables had been set in the lounge, but we were able to bring everyone inside out of the weather and fifty people lined up along the corridor waiting their turn for a meal.

It was worth the wait.  The meal was superb: a traditional Christmas dinner, with all the fixins --  turkey,  mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, vegetables, cranberries followed by fresh-baked pie.   We set up two serving lines so everyone was served quickly.  Including those waiting in line, we managed to serve over 220 people that night.

We had rolled the piano into the hall and Jackie added to the festivities by playing Christmas carols and leading the singing.   Then, to the squeals of almost 30 children, in walked Santa Claus with a Ho, Ho, Ho, lighting up the room.  He was loaded down with gifts courtesy of the kind elves at St Anne's Anglican Church and handed out a specially selected and wrapped gift for each child.

On the way out, everyone was given a mandarin orange and candy cane as a memento of a great evening.  It was a fitting end and I haven't heard so many Merry Christmases and thank yous, in so many different accents, from so many smiling, grateful faces, in a long time.

For many of our guests, Christmas dinner at the St Alban Community Meal has become a wonderful annual tradition.  For others, this was their first Christmas meal with us.   The same can be said for the dedicated team that makes the Community Meal a reality.  Together, the returning guests, the new guests, the longstanding volunteers and the new volunteers turned a meal into something truly magical -  a Community Meal.