Coun. Chrissy McRoberts had just been elected when she suggested to Sarnia CAO Chris Carter that they get a team of city politicians and staff together to serve a meal at the local soup kitchen.
“I put the challenge out there and he accepted on the spot,” McRoberts said Wednesday as she co-ordinated a lunch of turkey dumplings, coleslaw and desserts at the Inn of the Good Shepherd.
A hot meal is served at the soup kitchen to at least 60 people a day - 365 days a year – by about 40 rotating teams, says volunteer co-ordinator Lynn LeFaive.
“This is the first time city council has been in the soup kitchen in my 14 years here.
“It’s a first. They’re making history,” she said.
On this particular Wednesday, five days before Christmas, 103 lined up for lunch served by five city councillors and nearly every department head at city hall.
Those who couldn’t be there gave money to purchase turkeys instead, McRoberts said. She picked up the tab for anything that wasn’t donated.
“I made this challenge because city council is so distanced from a huge portion of the city; the part that sometimes needs support from the Inn of the Good Shepherd and other services,” McRoberts said.
“By doing this, I am making a statement that change is in the air. City council makes decisions all the time that affect the most vulnerable in our community.
“We are all neighbours. It’s time we (at city hall) step out of our comfort zone and meet the people we’re making decisions for,” she said.
LeFaive said she too believes it’s important the city’s politicians and senior staff experience the soup kitchen.
“(City councillors) talk about homelessness all the time, so they should see what actually happens here,” she said. “These are people, the same as you and me. They put their pants on one leg at a time.
“But this could be the only hot meal they get all day or the only social contact they have. Living in poverty can be very lonely,” LeFaive said.
Gigi, who doesn’t want her last name used, volunteers to make lunch once a month at the soup kitchen. She was there to help the city hall team learn the ropes.
“I think it’s awesome council is here,” she said. “Maybe some good things will come of it because I know this is eye opening. People need to see that many are just getting by.”
The holiday season is particularly busy at the Inn.
Not only is a hot lunch served every day, but 55,000 pounds of food are handed out at the food bank every month. There are currently 1,950 people using the food bank.
And the Inn’s Adopt-A-Family program that provides Christmas gifts to those who can’t afford them, has 600 families on its roster. That’s 100 more than last year.
“It’s nice to see staff and council working together. It’s a great team builder,” said the Inn’s CEO Myles Vanni.
“I really hope this is a good learning process about the need in our community. Actually handing a plate of food to someone is entirely different from reading about it.”
Too many people make assumptions that the Inn’s clients are lazy or have addictions, Vanni said.
“We do see a lot of mental health issues,” he said. “But 70% of the people at our food bank have jobs. They may have disabilities. They may be retired. But they are often not what people think.”
Prior to the pandemic, about 120 a day had lunch at the soup kitchen, said LeFaive. That number has dropped to 60-100 or so.
“That’s because we lost a fair number to Covid, to the cold, to addiction,” she said.
Others were successful in finding jobs and lifting themselves out of poverty, LeFaive added. “You need to come here in order to understand,” she said.
“You need to meet the people.”
McRoberts said the meal served by council and city staff was such a good experience, the team agreed to make it a quarterly event.