Service with a smile

Each week volunteers don gloves, aprons and smiles and serve up a great meal to our guests.    Our servers often come as a group: service clubs like the Richmond Sunshine Rotary and Steveston Rotary each take one Tuesday a month and local organizations like the city of Richmond, Richmond Funeral Home and Vancity also book evenings during the year.  The remaining nights our volunteers who have set up the hall, or worked in the kitchen step in to serve.

Last week, pictured above, we had a blend of volunteers from the city of Richmond Parks and Recreations and Public Works (including one who drives a snow plow for the city) along with some of our newest volunteers: Olivia, Mei, Joe, Risely and Kurt.    Many of our volunteers have already put in a hard day at work, so spending another couple hours volunteering to prepare or serve food,  set up tables or clean up afterwards, is really appreciated.

So, thank you volunteers for your service to our guests and to our community.  It's heartwarming to see people from the local community offering service to their neighbours, sharing a meal and exchanging smiles.

Cheque day

Last night, we didn't get even close to filling the hall, our  lowest number in a long time. This was especially strange since is was the day before "cheque day" (the last Wednesday of each month) when people on social assistance receive their monthly allowance.    Most folks are pretty well flat broke for a few days before cheque day.

The meal isn't exclusively for low income people -- we welcome everyone, regardless of their background, income or age -- but there are many who depend on their monthly social assistance cheque or pension cheque, and our weekly meals, to get them through the month. 

Imagine if your only income consisted of a single cheque once a month.  For many, the cheque is for  $235 and this has to cover all their expenses (except lodging): food, clothing, transportation, phone, etc etc.   If you have a place to rent, you get an additional  $375 per month.   Try finding something in Richmond for $375.  You can read more about the social assistance rates here: Social assistance rates.  A Surrey MLA, Jagrup Brar, has taken the challenge of living for one month (this past month of January) on the social assistance rates.   His blog is here: MLA Welfare Challenge

It's a pleasure and privilege to be part of the St Alban Community Meal team, to be able to offer great food each week to whoever comes to our door.  For many, it's the most nourishing and tastiest meal they've had in a while.   And for those on social assistance, it's become a real lifeline.

Golden Tickets

Recently, we started a new process to help streamline seating at the meal: as each person comes through the door, we hand them a yellow, numbered meal ticket.   This allows us to keep track of how full the hall is getting (the hall holds 124 people), how fast it's filling up (good information to the kitchen), which seats are still empty, etc.

We had to explain to each person what the ticket was for.  Some thought it was their pre-assigned table number (we have open seating).  Others thought it meant  the hall was full and this was their place on the waitlist  (we've handed out numbers in the past just for this purpose).   No, it was simply a ticket they could exchange for their meal, or place on their seat to hold their spot while they wandered off somewhere.  It worked really well and we did it again this week.

At some point, we started calling them Golden tickets as we handed them out.   Golden tickets were featured in one of my daughter's favourite childhood stories and movie: Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  In the story, a golden ticket was hidden inside one of five randomly selected Wonka chocolate bars.   Whoever discovered one of these five tickets won a fantastic prize: touring the chocolate factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate.   It led to some interesting behaviour.  Spoiler alert: For example, a rich Dad bought thousands of bars to ensure his  daughter got a ticket.  And one of the poorest children in the land managed to get a ticket.

Here at the meal, everyone gets the same golden ticket, regardless of income, beliefs, age or appearance.   And everyone gets the same prize: a hot, tasty meal cooked and served with love.  And, since the meal's been going strong for over a decade, you could say we're offering a lifetime supply of fresh, hot Tuesday meals at St Alban.  And I'm sure if people ask nicely, we'd even offer up a tour of our little Community Meal factory.

Christmas Dinner

The lineup outside the front doors stretched way down the sidewalk to the church on Tuesday 13 December.  The crowd was in a festive mood -- tonight was the annual Christmas dinner at the St Alban Community Meal.

The doors opened at 5 pm, and from the moment our guests entered, they were treated to a very special evening.   Just inside the door, each adult was offered a gift (Santa came later for the kids).  They had their choice of a huge bottle of shampoo, a bag of cookies, a tube of toothpaste or a box of crackers.   It was interesting to see who chose what -- most went immediately for the giant shampoo bottle, others quickly snagged a bag of cookies and some took a little time deciding before carefully selecting.

Next, with gift in hand, they moved through the double doors into the hall.  What a spectacle greeted them: each table with its green or red table cloth, Christmas napkins and a beautiful centerpiece, and at the far end, up on the stage, a large Christmas tree lit up with a thousand lights.

We knew we wouldn't be able to seat everyone, even though up extra tables had been set in the lounge, but we were able to bring everyone inside out of the weather and fifty people lined up along the corridor waiting their turn for a meal.

It was worth the wait.  The meal was superb: a traditional Christmas dinner, with all the fixins --  turkey,  mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, vegetables, cranberries followed by fresh-baked pie.   We set up two serving lines so everyone was served quickly.  Including those waiting in line, we managed to serve over 220 people that night.

We had rolled the piano into the hall and Jackie added to the festivities by playing Christmas carols and leading the singing.   Then, to the squeals of almost 30 children, in walked Santa Claus with a Ho, Ho, Ho, lighting up the room.  He was loaded down with gifts courtesy of the kind elves at St Anne's Anglican Church and handed out a specially selected and wrapped gift for each child.

On the way out, everyone was given a mandarin orange and candy cane as a memento of a great evening.  It was a fitting end and I haven't heard so many Merry Christmases and thank yous, in so many different accents, from so many smiling, grateful faces, in a long time.

For many of our guests, Christmas dinner at the St Alban Community Meal has become a wonderful annual tradition.  For others, this was their first Christmas meal with us.   The same can be said for the dedicated team that makes the Community Meal a reality.  Together, the returning guests, the new guests, the longstanding volunteers and the new volunteers turned a meal into something truly magical -  a Community Meal.