7 min

Helping hands

From The Sandwich Squad to A Loving Spoonful, queer volunteers are making a difference

Credit: Michelle Mayne photo

Twice a week, Gordon Fraser makes his rounds, collecting bread donations from Cobs on W 4th Ave and the Maple Leaf Bakery on Davie St to feed the West End’s homeless.

“Every Wednesday or Friday night, anything that’s not sold at closing time is mine,” says the 59-year-old gay man who moved here from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia 13 years ago.

Fraser is the organizer of The Sandwich Squad, which works out of St John’s United Church in the West End. For the past two years, he and his team of volunteers have been making sandwiches in the church’s gymnasium to feed the city’s street people.

“At 7:30 on Thursday mornings, I slice bread for about an hour,” he outlines. “We slice anywhere from 40 to 100 loaves of bread [depending] on what we get. Saturday mornings, we slice bread at 8:30, [then] at 11:00 volunteers come to the church. We make hot chocolate, coffee and tea, and the sandwiches. We take about two hours to make 1,000.

“We have anywhere from 15 to 20 volunteers each week,” he continues. His approach to volunteers is based more on faith than formality. Although The Squad does have its regulars, people come and help as they can.

“[We] never know who’s going to show up. All you’ve got to have is a pulse and a pair of hands,” he quips. “We can have a 75-year-old lady or a 19-year-old student from Seoul. We have a number of people from our own community who come,” he adds.

“It’s all done in love,” Fraser says, “because we all feel the same way.”

He is very straightforward about why he’s involved in this project. “I believe that when you take your livelihood out of a community you need to give something back.”

He then goes on to repeat the familiar maxim, “There but for the grace of God go I,” as further inspiration for his efforts.

The program began in 2004 when a woman from the city spoke at the church. “She mentioned that the number of homeless people had doubled between 1999 and 2004,” Fraser recalls, “and it’s probably almost doubled again since then. Today, there are roughly 7,000 homeless people in Greater Vancouver, and in the West End it’s about 1,500.

“If the program [were] to stop there’d be more hungry people on the street,” he says. “It’s as simple as that.”

Under Fraser’s direction, The Squad has been successfully working with local businesses to secure some of the sandwich ingredients at reduced or no cost. He has also had success raising funds from businesses like Cruisey T, TD Canada Trust, Vancity, and his own company, Rand & Fowler Insurance, to purchase meat, condiments and other supplies.

Some community groups like the Rhinestone Phoenix Charity Foundation, the Knights of Malta, and the Rainbow Community Church have also contributed. In July, The Sandwich Squad received one of the inaugural Legacy Fund grants from the Vancouver Pride Society.

Once made, the sandwiches are provided to Ellen Shonsta, or “Mom” as she’s more commonly known on the street, who distributes them nightly from her scooter-pulled cart at locations throughout the West End. According to Fraser, Shonsta distributes 5,000 sandwiches a week. The Sandwich Squad is one of several programs that provide her with food.

Like many in the West End, Fraser’s car has been broken into several times and things have been stolen. But he’s quick to dismiss the personal costs of such losses. “Very often people steal because they’re hungry, or they have an addiction and need to feed [it]. We’re hoping that by feeding these people, we’re reducing some of the crime,” he says.

Now, with the holidays fast approaching, Fraser says he’ll expand his efforts to collect socks, shoes, blankets and coats.

“Last year, we gave out over 1,500 pairs of socks to the homeless,” he says. He is also gathering sleeping bags and waterproof footwear for the upcoming winter.

On his wish list are some “stainless steel tables to make the [sandwich] assembly line even better.” He would also welcome an electric bread slicer because even the cost of a used one is prohibitive.

For people looking to simplify their holiday shopping, he suggests a unique idea. “Rather than give my family Christmas gifts last year, I donated money to our fund. They each got an income tax deduction from the church. It saves having to buy sweaters for friends [if] you don’t know what they want, or like. Everyone likes tax deductions.”

Nancy Austin has been a driver for A Loving Spoonful for three years, providing free, nutritious meals to people living with HIV/AIDS in the Vancouver area.

A 35-year-old, emergency room doctor, originally from Montreal, she came here from Halifax with her partner seven years ago. “We just decided to go somewhere different. We’d never lived here, so we moved,” she says.

“While I was in medical school, I didn’t really do a lot outside of [it] that felt like I was contributing on a volunteer basis to the community,” she recalls.

“I was drawn to A Loving Spoonful,” she continues, “because [its] goal of providing people with one of the basic needs, food, resonated with me. There’s no reason for people who are sick to be hungry as well.”

She also got involved, she says, “because it’s supported in huge part by the gay community. I wanted to do something that felt like I was again part of the gay community.”

Thom, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be printed, has been involved with A Loving Spoonful for over 10 years, as both a volunteer and a client.

“I’m pretty much a loner at this point in my life. For me to pick up my meals, or have someone drop them off–it’s nice to see someone special when you’re feeling really, really crappy. It really is amazing because sometimes you are the only person that [client] sees.

“There are times that you just don’t have the energy to get up and prepare a meal, be it [laziness], or just not feeling well,” he continues. “I pop a meal in and I don’t have to worry about all the clean up. It’s a bonus for me because I get that extra nutrition during the day.

“I remember taking food to this guy,” Thom recalls of one of his assignments as a volunteer. “He answered the door in his bathrobe. He was very, very frail and I honestly think that I was the only person that he had seen in weeks. When I delivered the food, I stopped and talked to him for maybe five or 10 minutes. You have a delivery schedule, but I stopped. By the time I left, my heart was broken because I felt that he wanted me to come in and sit down. He just wanted a friend, and I really wish I could have been that person for him. It was one of the most heartfelt moments I’ve ever experienced.”

Austin agrees. For her, “the most memorable things occur on a weekly basis. The client who was particularly ill and now looks a little bit better. That’s why we’re there. Filling that basic need of good nutrition and a weekly visit by someone who cares [is] what a lot of clients need.”

Along with its annual food drive, A Loving Spoonful prepares individualized Christmas hampers for each of its more than 200 clients.

As the director of programming and client services, Lukas Maitland’s job is “to know everything about everybody.”

He describes how the hampers are prepared. “We send out notices with the food every week leading up to Christmas asking people about their pets, what size of clothing they wear, and if they are going to be home. We gather all the information we can, so they get something that will really make them feel special.

“We get lots of tearful calls because a lot of people have been pretty socially isolated, [and] haven’t celebrated, or had anyone give them a gift in years. They are really touched that someone remembered them,” Maitland says.

“For me,” says Thom, “I don’t have a lot of things. All my family is back east. That Christmas basket is that extra hug. [It’s] the matter of someone saying that they care, and going the distance to do that.”

“The clients love the Christmas hampers, I can’t even describe,” Austin enthuses. “They look forward to [them]. They talk about [them] for weeks to come, and when they finally do get [them] they’re beside themselves. Some are tearing it open before it’s technically in the door they’re so excited. They remember the one from the year before, if they were on the service at that point, and they talk about what they got. The Christmas hamper is a huge thing for a client.”

According to the 2004 Canadian survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating released this June, 45 percent of Canadians over the age of 15 years volunteered in the 12 months surveyed.

Although British Columbia’s volunteering rate matches the national average of 45 percent, it is the fourth lowest in the country, behind everywhere except Québec (the lowest at 34 percent), Newfoundland and Labrador, Nunavut and New Brunswick. However, BC’s volunteers do lead the country in the number of hours contributed per person: 199 versus the national average of 168.

BC’s volunteers reflect the fact that the fewest people are doing the most work. The top 10 percent of volunteers are contributing 52 percent of all hours.

Of the non-volunteers, two in five surveyed said they didn’t volunteer because no one asked them to, while 22 percent said they didn’t volunteer because they did not know how to get involved.

Gayway’s Omar Dominguez suggests that anyone who’s interested in volunteering but doesn’t know where to begin can contact local resources like Volunteer Vancouver to learn more. He also notes that gay groups such as The Centre’s Prideline or the Vancouver Pride Society are always looking for help. He encourages potential volunteers to contact whichever groups they feel particularly drawn to.

“People don’t have to go very far,” he says, especially at this time of year.

“There are lots of people in this city that will be spending Christmas on their own this year,” Dominguez explains, “because they might not be close to their family, they are new immigrants or refugees. If people want to do something for their community, they can go through their phonebook and invite all those Christmas orphans to share a meal, even if it is pizza and hot chocolate.”