If you are lucky, you probably had a pretty relaxing Christmas. If you were cooking, it was for family or friends and hopefully in the warmth of a nice home.
But for some members of the community, Christmas can be one of the most difficult times of year. Addictions and homelessness are isolating — doubly so when you hear tunes at the mall humming themes of family, connections and togetherness.
And for some other members of the community, that is unacceptable — a call to action.
The Western News spoke to a few groups that were making food for some of Penticton’s out-of-luck community members who find themselves on the streets, scrounging for change or just plain lonely this season.
Discovery House: Richard Haughian and Ken Jones
“You know what, these guys are my family,” Haughian said as turkey dinner was being prepared at Discovery House Monday afternoon. “Being around Discovery House, being a part of it for the past 10 years, 11 years, I got me 150 new little brothers and some big brothers, too.”
Haughian and Jones are both employees of Discovery House — Haughian is a client care advocate and orchestrated the dinner, while Jones is the program director at the new location no Winnipeg St. — but they are also both former residents of the addictions recovery spot.
So both of them know how lonely addictions can feel, especially during the holiday season, and how challenging Christmas can feel when you’re fighting that addiction.
“It’s a reflection of the fact that healthy connection is something that we’re usually so estranged from that they don’t feel capable of making the proper connections that they need to get through a family holiday,” Jones said.
“They feel ashamed about not being able to buy presents for their kids or their family members. The shame of all that stuff not having people they can just call up and say this is where I am, this is what I’m doing — they don’t have that, yet.”
Jones said a lack of connections can exacerbate addictions — people who are addicted to substances can find themselves even more entrenched in the addiction after their relationships have fallen apart.
“Trauma that’s pushed forward into places of pain that then pushes us forward into places where we don’t want to feel what we’re feeling the moment and we feel that we need a sort of disconnect,” he said. “Unfortunately we don’t just disconnect from our pain and our feelings. We disconnect from every human relationship around us.”
And while most people try to steer clear of work on Christmas Day, Haughian said Discovery House is the first place he wanted to be on the holiday.
“I’ve cooked turkeys … for so many Easters and Thanksgivings and I’m actually a pretty good cook, he said with a laugh.
“I get to watch being a part of seeing people come in here broken — really broken and hurting — and after a month they get a smile back. Six to eight weeks they get their voice. Two, three, six months down the road, they’re totally different and they’re stepping out of their comfort zone and doing and exploring new things.”
The Elite Restaurant: Barry Wood
“I definitely want to put something like a big thank you once it’s done, because a lot of people (have helped),” Wood said.
The most common denominator between the three groups the Western spoke to on Monday was a yearning to build connections. But while the theme of connections is important for a recovery house, at the Elite Restaurant on Main Street, many of those who called ahead to ask about the dinner were seniors.
“The phone started ringing a month ago, ladies going ‘are you doing dinner? I’m not homeless, I’m just alone,’” he said. “That’s what it’s about as much as anything, just come on down, and that’s a big demographic that I want to be there for and stuff, too.”
With that said, Wood said the annual Christmas dinner at the Elite began three years ago, while Wood was off — but he started it to help out some of Penticton’s down-and-out.
“I was off that winter, and so I said that’s perfect timing for me to volunteer and help and do that, and then I became partner in the business. I’m just taking over the business full-on,” he said. “So I had the idea a couple years ago, and it was a success, and I just said let’s do this every year.”
But Wood said cooking up a storm on Christmas isn’t too strange for him, having worked in retirement homes in the past.
“I’ve kind of got it down, now,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t mind. It’s a nice thing to have to look forward to … kids are older, it’s not as big a deal. They’re not waiting on Santa, so we did some things last night.”
In his work at retirement homes, Wood said he regularly worked the Christmas shift, cooking for over a hundred people at a time, anyway.
“A lot of people are happy to work on Christmas, to have something to do as much as a place to go because they’re hungry or alone, but also because they want to have something to do and be part of giving something,” Wood said.
This year, he said he expected to see even more people than in years past, adding if it exceeded his preparations — over 100 attendees — he could just start flipping burgers.
Monday Night Dinners at Nanaimo Square: Christine Volk
“I started helping out with the dinners back end of March this last year. I just wanted to do something for the community,” Volk said. “It’s become a passion for me. I mean, the people that I’ve met here have become friends and I worry about when I don’t see them.”
Monday Night Dinners at Nanaimo Square is a not-for-profit club that serves a “home cooked with love meal” each Monday night to serve at Nanaimo Square downtown at 5 p.m., all through volunteers, according to the group’s main organizer Kristine Lee, who was not on hand on Monday.
Volk said the main reason the group was down at Nanaimo Square on Christmas was because it happened to fall on a Monday. The group wasn’t as busy as usual this week — perhaps because of other dinners, like the one at the Elite, but by 5:30 there were a couple of people served by the group.
“Our numbers have been down recently. People have disappeared and we don’t know where they are, and that’s worrisome, especially when you get cold like this,” Volk said, adding the response from the community is typically a positive one.
“We have people stop by randomly and drop off clothes or hand warmers, cookies. This is the time of year when people like to give the most. It’s a spot that touches all of our hearts, but it is a need year-round.”
Volk spoke of one client whose wife died of cancer, and who she said began drinking to “dull the pain” and ultimately lost everything and landed on the streets.
“That could be anybody. So it’s definitely something we need to be aware of, and the more you become involved in it, the more you become aware,” she said. “In a community as small as Penticton, it’s shocking how many people are on the street, or even those who aren’t on the street who need help because, rental prices, there’s nothing left after you pay rent.”
Volk said she worked about three hours preparing a large shepherd’s pie, plus cook time, and her and about seven others congregated in the freezing cold at Nanaimo Square to sing some carols and dole out some food — far more than usually show up for the event.
“All of these volunteers, this is their first time here, so I would have liked them to have met some of my friends, here, but they’ll come back.”