This past Christmas, Meghan and I spent some time volunteering at the Mustard Seed Food Bank in order to assist with their annual Christmas hamper distribution program. The program spanned three days, with the first day being devoted to families, the second to couples and the final day to individuals. More than 500 hampers were dispensed from the Mustard Seed over those three days.
On the morning that I volunteered, the day was allocated to couples. When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see a group of young women in their late teens or early twenties ready to help. There were also a few men there whom I had seen at the Mustard Seed on many occasions, people who volunteer their time on a regular basis.
The large room at the back of the food bank that is normally devoted to social and ministry space had been transformed into a food warehouse. Pallets stacked with boxes of food were in long rows and reached almost to the top of the high ceiling. Rectangular tables had been assembled end to end in order to allow for an assembly line of food.
Rudi Wallace, the Food Intake Coordinator for the Mustard Seed, a personable and energetic man, gave the food assembly volunteers instructions on how to make up the hampers. There was to be a turkey for each couple, along with a variety of other staples like potatoes and onions. And, he pointed out, we were to be cheerful, festive and friendly; make the clients feel welcome. There was Christmas music playing in the background and we were given Santa hats to wear.
Closest to the doors was a table and computer set up, which was where I sat with another volunteer, greeting those who came in, checking their identification against the database on the computer and then directing them to the tables where other volunteers then assembled their hamper for them.
As people started to trickle in, the woman who was working with me would read out the names from each person’s identification while I searched the database for a match. While we were doing this, we made small talk with each person in front of us, inquiring as to how they were doing and if they had transportation or were walking. I found that most of the people who came in welcomed the opportunity to connect with us and most seemed cheerful and relaxed.
Not every person was ushered forth for their hamper, however, and that was the most difficult part of the job. What I discovered about how the Christmas hampers work was that they are handled by a separate bureau. Each person, couple or family submits an application and then indicates where they would like to receive their hamper from. There were a few occasions where I had to turn people away because when I looked up their name, it was indicated in the database that their hamper was to be collected from another agency, such as the Salvation Army or the Times Colonist. It was heartbreaking news to deliver to people who had the made the trek to the Mustard Seed on the bus or by foot on a particularly cold day. For people trying to secure food, especially those who were elderly or had addiction issues, administrative details had likely been cumbersome and often misunderstood.
At one point a young man came in. He looked cold in his thin shirt and stressed beyond his years. His hands were jammed in his pockets and his eyes were downcast as he quietly asked me if he could have a food hamper. I gently inquired if he had any identification so that I could check his name in the database and he said no, that he had simply come to the Mustard Seed at his girlfriend’s request, that he had a hungry 20-month old baby at home. I knew that this was beyond my authority or expertise and called for Rudi, who was buzzing around answering questions, solving problems and chatting with people as they came in. Rudi seemed to know almost every single client personally and it was evident that everyone trusted and respected him.
I quickly relayed the man’s history, wondering what would happen next, and Rudi patiently explained that without an application for a hamper, he couldn’t get one at that time. Rudi then directed him to reception where he could fill out an application form and come back later that afternoon to see what was left. He assured the now dejected man that there would most likely be something for him if he came back later. The young man then shuffled off to fill out the form, no doubt dreading having to return, empty handed, to his girlfriend and baby .
Later, a smartly dressed middle aged woman came in, looking like anyone you would see at the grocery store or a restaurant. When I searched her name in the database, it indicated that she had already received a Christmas hamper from Santa’s Anonymous. When I explained this, at the same time sending someone to find Rudi, whom I knew I would need for direction, she pointed out that the Santa’s Anonymous hamper, while it had included gifts for her three grandchildren, had contained hardly any food items.
While we waited for Rudi, the young grandmother - we found out she was only forty-nine - went on to tell us about the hardships she had endured taking over custody of her grandchildren from her three children who were unable to raise them, subsisting on disability insurance after being injured on the job, the endless forms she had filled out at various government institutions, and, the worst part, the discrimination she had endured from officials who assumed that she was an addict because she was applying for assistance. I sat there wide-eyed, still trying to reconcile the picture of this well put together and articulate woman who was on the doorstep of the Mustard Seed seeking food to help feed her grandchildren.
By this time, another volunteer, one of the hamper builders, had stopped to listen to the woman’s story as well. I recognized him as one of the regular volunteers, a kindly teddy bear of a man. He immediately offered to give the woman his own hamper, saying in his big but soft voice that she clearly needed it more than he did. I asked the woman to stay put until Rudi came back, thinking to myself that there was probably a protocol to be followed. I was right. Rudi arrived, heard what was going on and swiftly decreed that while her circumstances were indeed difficult, the Mustard Seed could not, in fairness to others, give her another hamper. I could see that there were other factors at play that I was not privy to and just as quickly as she had arrived, the woman gathered her things and left.
It was a privilege to work alongside people like Rudi who do this work every single day and are always cheerful, patient and ready to listen without judgment. Connecting with the people, hearing their stories and being part of such an important program left me energized and wanting to do more for the individuals and families in need that frequent the Mustard Seed. Next Christmas, both Meghan and I want to be part of the hamper program again. This time we plan to help on the day that the hampers to families are dispensed so that we can reach out to people just like us, parents and children trying to have a happy Christmas.