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Dignity, kindness along Old Brewery “zipper line”

30 Mar 2011
Bonnie Sandler S.W., The Senior Times - March 2011
At Christmas time, my daughter and I tried to sign up to volunteer to serve dinner at the Old Brewery Mission. We weren’t the only ones with this idea; all volunteer positions were taken.

We chose a later date and showed up at 4:30 pm, joining about 10 others also there for the first time. We were all a bit nervous, not knowing what to expect. There were two other mother and daughter duos, and one young man in this all female group—all strangers and yet within minutes we were conversing as if we had known each other for years. One teammate asked for my card when she realized that I worked in geriatrics, because she is involved in the same field.

We were given a quick tour by Luc, a fine man who had used the services of the shelter years before. He explained the different dorm rooms and answered our questions in a knowledgeable and friendly manner. He shared stories, including one of the man who slept in the same bed for 23 years. Luc, like the others working here, clearly enjoys what he does and feels purpose in his life. Our nervous group was escorted to the kitchen where our duties were explained. We were given aprons and gloves (which needed to be changed for each of the three servings). The group had difficulty understanding the “zipper line” for serving the food and this only added to our anxiety.

We were told to report any inappropriate behaviour to a staff person. Although we did not feel prepared, we moved into position as the diners calmly entered the room, filling each seat in the order they entered. There did not seem to be any newcomers, since seating was quick and efficient. Our group was still mumbling about the “zipper line” and worried that we still didn’t know what to do. Dinner was pasta with chicken and an interesting side vegetable dish featuring grape tomatoes. A slice of bread and two mini pastries were set at each place. All went smoothly until a vegetarian meal was requested, but my panic quickly disappeared when I discovered that this was not a problem and promptly served the meal to a very grateful and pleasant man. Everyone was treated with dignity and kindness.

Our group grew stronger as we found our rhythm, as though we had been doing this for years. We are still not sure whether we were in the proper zipper line but we were efficient. Two volunteers were assigned coffee duty, probably the most difficult task. Diners were polite and many expressed gratitude. Just as we leaned back for a moment to observe our good work after the first meal service, we were handed rubber buckets and told to clear the tables. I protested, saying that they just sat down, but quickly noticed that the first people to arrive had eaten their meals and were already leaving. The diners helped clear the table. They smiled and helped stack dirty dishes and place them in the container. Everything moved at a fast pace.

Next thing you know, we were on our second serving. By then our group had bonded like Krazy Glue and we were confident we were the most successful volunteer group ever. We continually congratulated ourselves, seeking confirmation from the staff, who agreed that we were extremely efficient. We joked and wondered whether their job was to tell this to each volunteer group. By the time we finished the third serving we were feeling like pros My daughter named us The Zippers.

We agreed to return in a few weeks as a team. We joined the full-time volunteers and staff while they ate dinner, some of us eating, others wanting to prolong the experience with a cup of coffee. It was then that I noticed beautiful framed photography displayed around the room and was told that the photos were taken by one or two of the men who used the services of the Old Brewery Mission. Although I am no art critic, these pictures seemed worthy of exhibition in an art gallery.

I can only begin to imagine the history of each individual that rendered them homeless. I wonder how many of us could find ourselves in the same situation through bad luck, mental health issues, addiction or financial bankruptcy. Are any of us safe from this lifestyle? Do we even think about how fortunate we are to have homes where we can eat meals and not rely on the charity and goodwill of others? Maybe we all need to volunteer to be grateful for what we have and complain less about what we are lacking.
We returned home exhausted but feeling amazingly good. I did cancel my plans for later that evening since the few-hour stint was more physically tiring than I imagined. It was a wonderfully rewarding experience to share with my daughter and to feel so connected to a group of people who went from being strangers to teammates in a short time.
Our return date falls on Luc’s birthday and the young man, studying to be a pastry chef, will be bringing a birthday cake. The Zippers will return!


Bonnie Sandler

Residential Real Estate Broker, Housing Consultant for Seniors

514 497-3775