St. John’s has a quiet Christmas

·4 min read

KITCHENER — With only two overflow shelters in Kitchener and in Cambridge, many on the streets had a cold, tough night on Christmas Eve.

This year I volunteered at St. John’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen in downtown Kitchener, to serve food and provide support to those who need it the most on Christmas Day.

In previous years Jeremy Horne and volunteers have given the Working Centre staff who operate St. John’s Kitchen a break by helping serving Christmas breakfast and lunch to people. Due to COVID and public health protocols, Horne and his volunteers instead distributed packaged take-away meals outside from a garage adjacent to the kitchen while the Working Centre handled preparing the Christmas meals inside.

This is the first year that Working Centre staff at St. John’s have worked Christmas Day, but as Joe Mancini, executive director of the Working Centre said, “this is just a regular day for us.”

I arrived just after 9 a.m. to an already bustling group of volunteers. Not knowing what to do with my hands, I reached to touch a tray on the counter. One of the volunteers, Pam Redpath, kindly offered a warning. “It’s hot,” she said. “Really hot.”

She gave me an oven mitt and a serving spoon, and I joined an assembly line of volunteers scooping hot lasagna into containers.

Around 9:45 a.m. people began milling in front of the building. Some were alone and others with friends, some with hands stuffed into pockets, others with cigarettes glowing between their fingers. Kayli Kinnear, staff with The Working Centre, said it is unfortunate they have to make them wait.

“The lineups are the toughest part,” Kinnear said. With a limit of only 30 allowed inside, Kinnear said that wait times to get out of the cold were inevitable.

On Christmas Eve, North Division officers responded to a 911 emergency on University Avenue and reversed an overdose. It is unclear whether this overdose happened at the emergency housing that the Working Centre operates at University Avenue, but it reminded me that this can be an extremely isolating time of year.

“For a lot of these folks coming for Christmas meals, their isolation from family has likely already been happening,” Mancini said. He pointed out that not everyone who comes will be unsheltered, speaking to the fact that many people need community this time of year.

At 10:30 a.m. the doors opened, and people filed in line to receive Christmas breakfast: waffles, with healthy servings of cherries, whipped cream, and maple syrup. People were given masks if they didn’t have one. I recognized one person, Jim Sye, waiting in line and rubbing his weathered hands. The last time I saw Sye was at Queen St. Common’s café, which felt like ages ago.

“You’re with The Record, eh?” Sye, 70 years old, said to me after I re-introduced myself. “Let me tell you, this year has been totally different.” He motioned to his mask, which he had pulled down so he could eat.

Sye said that St. John’s Kitchen seemed less busy than previous Christmas days. His friend, Bill Taplay, 80, nodded in agreement. By 12 p.m. nearly 60 people had come to receive a Christmas meal; in previous years there have been upwards of 200 people.

However, I’m confident that those in need this holiday season were able to get some support. Beautiful Souls KW, a grassroots mutual aid group, distributed hot chocolate, cider, and gift bags on Christmas Eve at 15-20 spots all over the Region; over 1500 people on Christmas Day will be opening gifts from the 519 Community Collective; Working Centre staff raised over $3000 to buy gift cards for the residents staying in interim housing at 139 University Avenue West; the Cafe Pyrus Outpost in Waterloo gave away cookies and hot drinks.

This year has seen traditions evolve or disintegrate. People are more isolated than ever before, and many are grieving lost ones. Gestures of love from a distance are tough; sometimes we miss the kindness of a smile hidden behind a mask. There is a good chance that many deeds will go unrecognized. Nevertheless, in times as stressful and uncertain as these we should be proud of all ways our community came together to care for one another this holiday season.

Fitsum Areguy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record