Christmas eve at the Port Coquitlam homeless shelter
If you go down to the Kingsway Campus of Northside Church tonight at 9 p.m., you might see a different kind of service then one you would normally associate with a church during the holiday season.
Yes, there might be Christmas music. But the service won't be the kind where hymns are sung and the Good Book is read. The Christmas Eve service is the kind when one person serves another, the kind of service that is life-changing, that makes a difference, when a conversation starts and someone starts a journey.
This is the story of a few of those who serve.
On the days that volunteer Chris Kimberley works the 5:30 a.m. shift cleaning mats, serving breakfast and handing out bag lunches with half a dozen other volunteers at PoCo's temporary Bridge Shelter, he wonders about the 20 to 25 women and men who spent the night on the sanctuary floor and what they'll do with their day once they leave at 7 a.m.
Will they head back to tents stashed in the woods along the Coquitlam River? Begin bottle runs for cash. Or go to work.
It's hard to know, but he wonders.
"The hardest thing is when you know it's freezing," Kimberley says, acknowledging that the damp cold and freezing rain can make outdoor living miserable. Such living is hard, he says — he knows he couldn't do it. When faced with homelessness after being evicted last spring, he called Resurrection House and was accepted into the addiction recovery program.
It saved his bacon, he says.
Andrea Corrigan says she has the best job in the world. You could say, the job was meant for her.
Corrigan used to volunteer with the temporary homeless shelter when when Hope for Freedom Society (HFFS) started the program with funding from the federal government, tepid support from the community, and cautious approval from the Tri-Cities' three city councils
At the time, six years ago, Corrigan was a volunteer for the mat program at St. Andrews United Church in Port Moody. Now, she has a criminology degree and her volunteer work has turned into a paying job at the Bridge Shelter, where she works as an HFFS employee. She oversees the volunteer effort to feed, clothe and shelter the dozens of men and women who will use the shelter between now and March, when the program ends for the season.
She will see between 800 and 900 volunteers walk through the doors at the church, armed with food, clothing and goodwill. Her job is to keep an eye on things, "just to make sure everything runs smoothly." But it's the volunteers who do the heavy lifting.
Here's a partial list of those who have helped out with the shelter so far this winter: Pathfinders, Rangers and Hope Lutheran School; St. Andrews, Calvary Baptist and Northside churches; a cashier from No Frills; two SFU students; 22 kids from Dr. Charles Best secondary.
Here's what they did in November: Laid out and put away 572 mats; made and distributed 1,700 meals.
"The volunteers do an awesome job — grocery shopping, arranging for donations, bringing the donations down…" Corrigan lists the number of tasks that have to be done and marvels that the number of volunteers hasn't dropped off since the shelter was moved to PoCo.
Each night, the mats have to be set up and each morning they are taken down and the place made spotless — all work done by volunteers. They all seem to show up, often not knowing what to expect, and when they leave, they're ready to sign up for another shift.
Chris Kimberley is one of those people who showed up at the shelter to volunteer and didn't leave.
"I find I get to know the people coming in," he says, and often, he makes a connection that can turn into friendship.
At least one couple he has met has moved into permanent housing while others have signed on to recovery programs at Hope for Freedom's Resurrection House.
In fact, two couples who were previously homeless are now housed, according to Hope for Freedom statistics. They are among the 56 who moved from the streets to permanent housing in just one year because of the connections they made at the shelter.
"These are the rewards," Kimberley says. "To see someone turn their life around makes it all worthwhile."
In November, when Julie Chuter was co-ordinating volunteers for St. Andrews, she saw one man undergo a transformation after eating three meals a day for a few weeks and spending his nights warm and dry in the shelter.
"He was skin and bones, there was nothing to him," she says. But as the days turned into weeks, the man grew healthy and strong. He joked he could balance a coffee cup on his stomach.
Chuter has three kids, two at home, and a full-time job but she wouldn't give up her volunteer post. There are just too many benefits — to the community, to the volunteers and to the homeless, who appreciate the efforts made on their behalf.
She recalls how one man whose life appeared to be in shambles said his bad luck couldn't have been all that bad if it resulted in his meeting shelter volunteers.
"He said he couldn't really consider it bad luck because he had met us,"she said, adding, "We are blessed to be a blessing."
In two years, when the permanent shelter opens at 3030 Gordon Ave. in Coquitlam, some of the work volunteers now do may be done by paid shelter workers (Rain City Housing Society has the contract to operate the shelter) but volunteers are likely to make important contributions.
Now though, they are indispensable.
Michelle Ames is an experienced shelter volunteer but, like anyone facing the daunting prospect of feeding up to 25 people at Christmas, is a bit nervous.
"This is my first time coordinating for December," she acknowledges. Although she has been a volunteer and a coordinator for Calvary Baptist for six years, the month of December presents its own challenges. But one thing is certain, there will be food.
Ames promises turkey dinner for Christmas eve, ham on Christmas day, breakfast on Christmas morning and stockings for those who spend the night in the shelter. All the gifts and food are donated and prepared by volunteers.
For Boxing Day? That's easy.
"I think we're looking at turkey sandwiches with gravy."
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of individuals who have used the Bridge Shelter since October — 85
Number of volunteers to organize food, mats and clean up at Bridge Shelter this winter — 800 to 900
Number of people who have found housing by coming to the Bridge Shelter in 2012 — 56