It’s cold outside.
That’s one of the first things I overhear clients say to one another as they come and go from the drop-in centre at the Salvation Army in Williams Lake Wednesday morning.
Having already served 40 or so for breakfast, Tamara Robinson, family services co-ordinator and outreach worker, is happy to give me an impromptu tour of the Salvation Army’s operations which services thousands of community members in need of assistance throughout the year.
As we head behind the scenes into the food bank where we find volunteer Darryl Desilets stocking the shelves, Robinson names off some of the many services run by the Salvation Army including a drug and alcohol step program, personal counselling as well as the heavily used breakfast, lunch and food bank services, just to name a few.
“A lot of our clients are illiterate, or have trouble comprehending things so I help them to access government programs or with government paperwork, I do whatever is needed,” Robinson said, noting they often partner with Canadian Mental Health Services and Interior Health to offer programs as well.
It’s about 10 a.m. and volunteer Randy Hoehne is hard at work preparing a home-cooked soup with whatever fresh, donated vegetables they got for the day from local grocery stores.
“Yesterday we had what we called deer chicken soup,” Hoehne said, laughing, of using donated deer meat and having to use chicken stock because he was out of beef.
“It turned out great. Everyone loved it.”
Hoehne, who volunteers two days per week said he volunteers because it’s a great way for him to give back to the community, adding he could use another volunteer helper on Wednesdays.
This week the soup kitchen has been feeding about 120 people every day.
“Every seat at lunchtime will be full,” said Robinson as she shows me the tidy, clean dining room.
As we enter the drop-in centre, located downstairs, I see a lot of familiar faces from the streets.
They’re happy playing pool, visiting or watching TV in the warm room.
“A lot of our clients are family,” Robinson said.
“And I like to think of this as their living room.”
Wilfred “Boone” Hurst stops his pool game to let me ask him a few questions.
He says he was raised in Riske Creek by his grandmother and has been coming to the drop-in centre since he was 16.
He loves the social aspect the centre has to offer and helps out as the centre’s resident barber, even having his own table set up with some of his favourite pictures of fishing at Farwell Canyon and his family.
“This is my comfort zone,” Boone says of the drop-in centre. “When I go home, I can’t wait to come back to see the smiles from everyone and feel the comfort.”
Justin Johnny is on the other side of the room, and clearly happy to be playing a game of air hockey.
A staff favourite, Justin says he likes to come to the centre to play pool and watch cable TV, which he doesn’t have at home.
After a little visit with Justin, Robinson shows me a full gym off the living room where anyone can come work out for free. Next to that is a closet with art supplies clients can help themselves to. Robinson says she could use more donations in that area.
Robinson said the drop-in centre has seen a big increase in use over last year. In 2015, between 500 and 700 people used the centre each month. This year the average is more than 1,000 per month, with November seeing 1,864.
“That’s a huge increase,” she said.
“It’s good and bad news. They are coming back because they are comfortable here and that’s good. I’d be worried if they weren’t coming because we know the need is here.”
In an interview with me earlier, Major Stephen French said his job is to balance the needs of his staff with that of the ever-present needs of those accessing their services.
“We do the best with what we have to stretch our dollars,” said French, noting the Salvation Army is run soley on money raised at the thift store, the Christmas kettle campaign and other donations.
“Without the kindness of people who give, we couldn’t do what we do,” French said.
Currently the Salvation Army needs volunteers to man its kettles at various businesses through the city. They also need volunteers Dec. 23 to prepare and serve Christmas dinner.
Any Christmas baking would also be welcomed for the special dinner or for the drop-in centre.
To volunteer, call 250-267-8064.