More than the hot meal and a cozy sleeping bag, it was the love of a group of strangers that most warmed Harley’s heart on a cold December night.
Having lived on the street for a forgotten number of years, Harley knows where the meals and blankets can be found, but it’s that compassion that often seems to be in short supply. But not tonight.
“This, that they really care, means more than anything,” he said, nodding to the smiling volunteers standing under the Christmas-lit trees in Nanaimo Square.
|Harley enjoys his Christmas dinner in Nanaimo Square.
Mark Brett/Western News
Those volunteers were dishing up meals with a smile and a hug for the group of homeless and less fortunate gathered there for Christmas Dinner in Nanaimo Square.
This is just one of Kristine Shepherd’s weekly Monday night dinners in Nanaimo Square, something she started three years ago to try and help.
“They’re all having a good time. It’s bad economic times … but everybody’s able to come together and help each other out. They care, they just really care,” said Harley.
It was a labour of love Shepherd undertook when Mike Forster’s Keep the Cold Off Nanaimo group ceased operations.
“Keep the Cold Off was a wonderful organization but was coming to an end and I couldn’t do everything they did but I could take over the dinners and now it’s just become so much more,” said Shepherd during a break from dishing up meals from the portable hot plate.
“I was almost on the street myself. I would be here with them now if I didn’t have the family support system I do, but a lot of people don’t have that support system so I decided that we needed to create that.”
Ann was sitting in the shadows of the large brick building with her plate of food, the last portion of which she scraped into a plastic container for later.
“Yeah, I guess it’s a little like Christmas here, they got lots of presents in those bags under the trees and the pretty lights,” she said, pointing up at the large blue and white star on top of the 50-foot fir tree. “I remember Christmas time, but I guess…”
Her words trail off as she turns and walks towards the alleyway.
“Obviously the need is still there. I do know that Penticton has their cold weather shelters and they’re all open right now but there’s still the need,” said Shepherd. “They get kicked out of the shelter in the morning. Then they have to be around town and hope to get back in the shelter in the evening but there are still only a certain number of beds.”
|A special hot Christmas dinner was served up in Nanaimo Square recently thanks to a group of volunteers led by Kristine Shepherd who are at the location every Monday evening.
Mark Brett/Western News
Only once in the three years has she had to call the police (for a fight) — “usually my mommy voice works” — but for the most part the people she helps look after themselves and each other are very grateful for her help.
The only negative response she heard came last October after a published report that two RDOS directors, Penticton Coun. Judy Sentes and Area F director Michael Brydon, suggested the Interior Health Authority be utilized to bring an end to the program under the pretext of food safety.
“It’s been really positive for the most part but since that backlash from that council member I’ve got twice as many donations and twice as many people wanting to volunteer, so a Christmas thank you card to Judy Sentes,” said Shepherd.
Barb was another person at the square this night.
“It’s so nice that they’re (volunteers) here for the homeless. The homeless know there will be people here Monday night and they come because they are hungry and have nowhere else to go,” she said. “They don’t judge the people and they talk to them and smile, I don’t know what would happen without them (volunteers).”
As the meal winds down, Barb, leaning on her walker, heads off in one direction and Harley, his new sleeping bag tucked away in the bundled up blanket slung over his shoulder, disappears into the night.
Thanks to Kristine and her volunteers who celebrate the true meaning of Christmas throughout the year, this night at least will be a little warmer — both inside and out.
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