Mission of faith

Nearly 200 York children would be seized by mid-day hunger pangs if they didn’t get a free brown-bag lunch each school day from Loaves and Fishes.
The York Christian charity that spooned out its first Thanksgiving dinner for the needy 12 years ago is still trying to meet the basic need of providing food for the hungry.
So, as well as serving three hot meals a week at its 54th Avenue mission, Loaves and Fishes volunteers deliver more than 30,000 lunches to needy kindergarten to high school students each year.
The lunch program started in 1999 after a school liaison worker noticed several youngsters were coming to school without bringing anything to eat, said Loaves and Fishes director Gerry Hunt.
Word spread quickly, and now Loaves and Fishes lunches are taken to hungry students at almost every city school.
While other charities are willing to speculate on why children are going hungry in a prosperous city in Canada’s wealthiest province, Hunt doesn’t go there.
“I don’t get political. . . . Let’s just say, if there’s a need, we will fill it,” said the director, whose reasons for helping are all listed in the Bible.
Hunt paraphrases a statement attributed to Jesus: “Whoever gives a cup of water in my name shall be blessed.”
The mission’s motto is summarized even more succinctly by staffer Terrie Wagner: “Where God guides, God provides.”
Lately, the charity has been led down many paths.
And, in the process, Loaves and Fishes has become much more than a soup kitchen.
With the goals of providing food for the hungry, refuge for the weary and comfort for the broken-hearted, the church-supported organization has evolved into a multi-service centre. It offers transitional housing, health clinics, work experience, transportation and support for the community’s most vulnerable residents.
Hunt’s wife Gladys, the charity’s office administrator, said new needs are identified all the time, yet fundraisers are rarely needed to pay for them.
“God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack provision,” she explained.
Loaves and Fishes staff members share many stories about how their prayers have been answered over the years.
It seems whenever cupboards are in danger of running bare, a restaurant or catering firm drops off surplus food, coffee or day-old baking, said Gladys.
“And we’ve got companies lining up to help serve our Christmas dinner,” said Gerry, who notes the corporate employees have even handed out donated Christmas toys to needy kids.
But perhaps the most significant example of prayers being answered occurred when two individuals from the business community stepped forward to provide for two big needs.
One entrepreneur gave to the charity its large space in Riverside Meadows. Another donated accommodations for a five-man transitional housing development.
The need for Genesis House became apparent to Loaves and Fishes workers after dealing with clients who were increasingly unable to get on their feet because of climbing rents in the city.
In Genesis House, the men pay $250 for their own bedrooms, a shared kitchen and living space. After six months, they are expected to move out and get their own apartments.
The health needs of Loaves and Fishes clients are also being met twice a year, when York College nursing students arrive for six-week stints to do volunteer work and run blood pressure, diabetes and foot care clinics.
It’s extremely beneficial — especially for people who otherwise wouldn’t go see a doctor, said Gladys.
The former soup kitchen easily has 200 volunteers on its roster — from visiting school groups to a family that, instead of exchanging presents, brings a turkey to the mission and helps dish out Christmas dinner.
Among those who help out at Loaves and Fishes is a middle-aged man named Morris, who has been cooking meals for many years.
Morris said he used to cook at many of Alberta’s best establishments, including the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise.
Then he was plagued by headaches and needed an operation to drain fluid from his brain. Now the man, who declined to give his last name, is on a disability pension and can’t hold down a steady job.
“Medically, I’m not capable of working, but here, I can come and go as I please. . . . It gives me something to do three days a week, and I enjoy giving something back to the community,” he said.
A young woman with a chronic illness also started out as a volunteer at the mission, but now has a paid cleaning job at Loaves and Fishes to supplement her disability pension.
The woman’s first contact with the charity was in the early 1990s. “I was on welfare and broke, low on food and hungry. I’d never gone to a soup kitchen before. . . .”
She later began volunteering — not just to pay back an organization that once helped her, but because “there’s a sense of family here, a sense of belonging and acceptance.”
While the immediate goal of Loaves and Fishes is to provide people with basic needs, Gerry Hunt said the longer-term hope is that these people will build a sense of self-worth.
“That’s part of what happens here, and it’s really the heart of our service.”