The Grind finds new home in old Pembroke Fire Hall

·8 min read

Pembroke -- There was a lot of excitement at the old Pembroke Fire Hall over the last week as volunteers and supporters of The Grind helped move boxes and furniture, setting up for the relocation of the agency which not only offers a soup kitchen but also client support to marginalized and low-to-no income community members.

“We will probably be open on the first of April – no fools – to serve folks lunches here,” said Executive Director Jerry Novack, who added final inspections and approvals are all anticipated by the end of the month.

It has been a busy time for The Grind in anticipation of this move to a much larger facility at the old fire hall and a much more affordable one as well from the previous downtown location. The organization took over the old fire hall last year, signing a five-year lease with the city and renovations began. The community kitchen (soup kitchen) and coffee house will be in two of the large truck bays. The third bay will be for food rescue with sorting and storage. Administration offices and more will be in the remainder of the building.

With this transition to the fire hall, the City of Pembroke has been an amazing supporter, Mr. Novack noted. While they will pay rent, it is nominal at best.

“We pay $1 a month,” he said, adding The Grind covers all utilities and all renovations on the property. “It is a huge commitment from the city.”

For many people Mr. Novack is the individual most closely associated with The Grind and he has been the voice of the local volunteer-driven organization since its inception. Its goal was always to meet the needs of “the least of these” for at its heart The Grind is very much a faith-based, non-denominational and inclusive organization.

“We are a non-profit, inter-denominational organization that demonstrates the love of Jesus ‘one cup, one smile and one bed at a time’. We are more than coffee, we are community,” the website mission statement clearly identifies.

As part of this, The Grind operates a coffee house, community kitchen, outreach ministry, shelter services including a Transition House, client services office and youth services recreational programs for children challenged by autism and other developmental issues. Entirely donation driven, the organization does not receive government funding but relies on donations and fundraising.

Although the move has occurred to the fire hall, it will take a bit longer to be fully operational. Not only do the bathrooms need to be completed but there are ongoing COVID-19 restrictions since Renfrew County is now in the Yellow Zone under the Ontario grid.

“So, we will have to continue with take out,” he said of the soup kitchen program. “And we will continue to do our outreach.”

During COVID-19 The Grind has continued to operate as a soup kitchen with take-out meals because of COVID restrictions and through delivering meals to the homeless and those who are unable to come to the location, including some seniors. Mr. Novack said one impact of the pandemic is an increase of food insecurity.

“I don’t want to say we doubled our numbers, but we are probably serving 80 people a day,” he said.

The community kitchen works in conjunction with the St. Vincent De Paul Soup Kitchen nearby at the St. Columbkille Cathedral in providing meals for those in need in the Pembroke area.

While the soup kitchen has been a key service provided by The Grind following the closure of the Salvation Army soup kitchen, the coffee house has traditionally been an important aspect of the organization. Right now, this is restricted because of COVID but plans are for it to re-open at the new location as well.

“When we open as a coffee house, we will have the 20 to 30 regulars who come for coffee and to talk,” he said.

When The Grind first announced its hope to relocate to the old Pembroke Fire Hall there was some opposition in the community, most notably from some members of the Pembroke Active 50+ Active Living Centre located next door, some supporters of the Pembroke Public Library which is also quite close and other neighbours in the immediate vicinity. Mr. Novack was at a public meeting to address the issue and noted he is aware of the concerns of some in the neighbourhood. He said The Grind is taking steps to ensure the safety and comfort of all in the vicinity.

“We are only open four hours a day,” he said. “Once they see our safety measures with security cameras and staff, they will see what we are doing.”

He noted there were also concerns in the downtown core when The Grind was located there and they became less as people became more familiar with the organization.

“We are providing a service that is needed,” he stressed.

As well, he is excited to see some people reaching out to help with the transition and at the new location, including new volunteers.

“We have some seniors volunteering,” he said. “So that partnership has started.”

Coldest Night of the Year

Support for The Grind from the community is necessary for day-to-day operations and one of the largest sources of support is the annual Coldest Night of the Year Walk in support of homelessness initiatives. This year the community response was tremendous, easily surpassing the goal of $55,000.

“It was a surprise to me with COVID and having a virtual event, but it was very successful,” he said.

So far $85,000 has been raised with more money coming in. Mr. Novack said in 2020 it was about half that.

“There was a new energy to this event with social media and the auction,” he said. “I am excited about it coming back next year.”

This money was earmarked to the community kitchen and is a tremendous help for The Grind.

“To raise $85,000 is amazing for us,” he said. “We don’t receive sustainable funding. It is 100 per cent donations and fundraising.”

While The Grind did receive some COVID-19 specific funding in the last year from the government this is not the norm, he stressed.

The Grind is Community

Bonnie Harnett-Wells is the administrative assistant at The Grind and has been at the forefront of the move to the new location working with the volunteers and lending a hand.

“We moved everything in from the old site on Friday and Saturday and we had so many volunteers helping,” she said. “It was facilitated really well.”

Now as the transition continues, she is excited about working out of the new location soon and serving the clients who come through their doors. She pointed out COVID-19 has shown what a need there is in the community. The take-out soup kitchen has been a huge help to many, she said.

“A lot of them are seniors that aren’t able to get out and we deliver to the vulnerable community,” she said. “And people that have lost jobs.”

While homelessness and economic vulnerability are something many are not exposed to, Ms. Harnett-Wells said it is a reality for many in the community.

“There are people here who are homeless,” she said. “And we are also doing a lot more wellness checks.”

The take-out soup kitchen meals have been a way to stay physically distanced, follow COVID restrictions and still meet the need in the area, she noted.

“We have a take-out window with no contact,” she said.

Yet the human connection is still there and the relationships are continuing to be a focus, she said. While volunteers always ask their clients how they are doing, the clients also in turn ask the volunteers, she pointed out, showing the importance of a reciprocal relationship.

“We are a real community,” she said.

While the Coffee House Drop-in had to cease during COVID-19, she is eagerly anticipating when this will happen again at the new location, she said.

As she watched the overwhelming response to the Coldest Night of the Year fundraiser, she was incredibly grateful to the community and felt people were more compassionate because the reality of the need became real to them.

“I have a feeling through the winter people saw our homeless people,” she said, noting people would see that when they were out for a drive or in the area. “During COVID people felt more giving.”

The new community kitchen and larger space at the fire hall will be a huge improvement on the previous location downtown, she said.

“We can bake our own cookies in a larger area with proper equipment,” she said.

As COVID-19 vaccinations began in Pembroke on the weekend, Ms. Harnett-Wells noted some people feel the worst of the pandemic may be at an end, but she said this is not the case.

“The repercussions of COVID have not hit for people who won’t have jobs to return to,” she said. “It will change our numbers here.”

Her time at The Grind has shown her this small local organization is making a huge difference.

“The Grind is phenomenal,” she said. “It is a family. We care about everybody and they care about us.”

Ms. Harnett-Wells is also looking forward to reaching out to neighbours at the new location.

“Their curiosity is peaked to see what we are doing,” she said. “Once they get to know our community, they will feel like we do. There is always fear of the unknown.”

She said people hear stories and are hesitant about what the move might mean, but she said The Grind is not the stories.

“The Grind is more,” she said. “It is a family and a community.”

Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader