Don’t mourn the soup kitchen, ask what’s next?

The volunteers at the soup kitchen don’t want the spotlight. Approach a soup kitchen volunteer to discuss their contributions and they quickly promote others who have put in time and effort to provide weekend lunches at the CYO Hall in the the Sacred Heart Cathedral at the corner of 4th Avenue and Steele Street.

For the organizers, there is always a person who has been there longer, put in more time, or been more instrumental in making the 25-year pilot project a success. Michael Dougherty was the co-chair of the Sacred Heart social justice group in 1992 when they were approached by the Salvation Army to fill that gap for weekend meal service.

“The Salvation Army told us that they wouldn’t be able to provide meals seven days a week and wanted to know if we could find a way to do the weekends,” said Dougherty. “It was an emergency need in the dead of winter and we discussed it as a group before recommending that we proceed to the Parish Council.” 

According to Dougherty, the group planned to provide the meal service as a Lent project. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and finishes on Easter Monday.
“We had the concern that if we started it and created the need in the community, what would we do after Lent,” said Dougherty. “But Rose (Byrnes) got everyone to agree that we should do it on a trial basis, because it was a pressing need. I guess that trial basis ended on Sunday (November 12).”
Over the past 25 years, the soup kitchen has had hundreds of volunteers in a multitude of groups and Dougherty credits that with the long term success of the project.
“The genius was a model that engaged a number of different groups,” he said. “Spreading the load made it possible and made sure no one group had Saturday and Sunday over and over again.”

Over the years he credits many people, noting key people in leadership roles to coordinate all those different groups.
Helena Shewen was the volunteer coordinator for many years and part of the first group providing service. Via email, Shewen recalled how she and Lawrence Vano served the first bowls of soup to eight people during their first day of service in 1992.

“At the beginning I had a phone list and solicited food donations from volunteers on behalf of the weekends Sacred Heart had committed to,” Shewen wrote. “(The) United Church had their volunteers and a couple of other churches took a regular day, as well as what I fondly called the “non-denoms,” like Mark Koepke’s group. We quickly established a regular list and and it has never ceased to amaze me how faithful the groups were.”

As Shewen notes, the soup kitchen drew from many different community groups, not just the local church organizations. Mark Keopke is one of the first to recognize others for their efforts. His group had only been involved for about 10 years.
“Helena Shewen mentioned at Christmas dinner that one of the soup kitchen groups was retiring, leaving an opening in the schedule,” Keopke wrote in an email. “ I figured I could pull together some friends to fill the gap, so I volunteered to oversee a soup kitchen every two months. I did my first one in mid-2007 and have been there for all but two soup kitchens since.”

Like most who were involved in the soup kitchen, Keopke believes it was an important way to give back.
“I appreciate that I’ve been very fortunate in my life, in many ways, and this was an opportunity to help people who clearly have not,” Keopke wrote.
“I also wanted to demonstrate that people who don’t embrace religion could do some of the heavy lifting, in terms of hands-on charitable efforts on behalf of our least fortunate, that too often falls to religious organizations — and too often without much acknowledgement from the rest of society.”
Philip Gibson is the final volunteer coordinator organizing the soup kitchen as it closes. He first joined 17 years ago as a member of Shewen’s group and feels the kitchen filled an important role, not just for the clients, but for the volunteers as well.

“For 25 years we provided a warm, welcoming place on Saturdays and Sundays for people to spend awhile and get a good, hot meal – so the benefit to those folks is self evident,” Gibson wrote in an email. “But there was also the benefit to the volunteers themselves in being able to come together. For some crews, such as mine, it was a social event. For other crews it was also a ministry. People from all across the whole spectrum of Whitehorse worked at the soup kitchen.

“Some people brought their kids and grandkids to volunteer and it was a great way to teach the value of service to the community.”
Shewen recalls fondly the times her family joined her.
“My family spent time at the soup kitchen as well… my youngest worked the dishwasher,” she wrote. “In the last few years we brought in grandchildren to pass out the grilled cheese sandwiches. I’ll never forget my granddaughter putting on a pretty dress with a tiara to serve. How to soften up a tough crowd!”

Dougherty agrees with the opportunity to build that tradition of helping others. “When you look at community building, getting to provide support builds social capital,” he said. “Folks learn the social benefit that they gain from helping others.”
He explained that it builds a strong legacy for the community and noted the many groups who have contributed over the years include the Vanier Secondary School Social Justice Club, a group organized by former city councillor and Yukon MLA Jan Stick, Whitehorse Rotary Society, Porter Creek Secondary School students, many church organizations and countless others.

Most groups would work once every two months, according to Gibson. “That turned out to be the ‘sweet spot’ for frequency, as most of the crews gravitated to working once every two months,” he explained. “Crews were a challenge to find, but when they worked once every two months we had very little turnover.”

That framework of community buy-in and shared responsibilities sustained the soup kitchen and has proven to be a model to support the community.
When asked, most of the groups who are still active suggest they will continue to volunteer and will look for new opportunities.
“People are discussing ‘What next?’,” Dougherty said. “They’re looking for the gap in the community that could use this model. We know it works and it will be easy to mobilize if there’s a compelling need.’

So don’t mourn the soup kitchen. It started 25 years ago on a trial basis to fill a gap in meal service that the Salvation Army was unable to provide. With the new Centre of Hope, the Salvation Army now provides three meals a day, seven days a week, so that gap no longer exists.
Gibson shared some wisdom on volunteering at the kitchen from founder Rose Byrnes. She once told someone, “It’s the perfect volunteer job – no meetings and no paperwork.”

For the volunteers who served at the soup kitchen, it was a labour of love and giving back to the community. Closing the doors simply means, what’s next?

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