Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Les Marmitons: Good Eats. Great Treats. Gourmet Delights.

Four years ago, when the Calgary chapter of les Marmitons wanted to make a difference at the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre, they chose the last Sunday in January as their preferred date to come and prepare a day’s worth of gourmet meals. Historically, it is considered to be the coldest day of the year, and this year was no exception. If not the coldest, January 27 was definitely one for the records.

While previous Sunday’s served up chilly weather, Sunday, January 27 delivered up bone-chilling frigid air spurred on by a biting north wind that cut through even the heaviest of clothing. It was a day to sit curled up in front of a fire sipping hot toddies and enjoying a bowl of tummy warming soup.

There was no roaring fire to warm-up clients at the Drop-In hearth, but the building was hot, and the kitchen a hotbed of feverish activity. Long before the crack of dawn, les Marmitons, a group of Calgary men from all walks of life who share a love of food and cooking, swept in amidst a flurry of pristine as snow white hats and aprons, and gleaming chopping knives and spinning whisks. Surrounded by giant mixing bowls and hundreds of pounds of potatoes, vegetables, butter, cream, garlic, salt, pepper and meats, they deftly conjured up a day of feasts fit for a king.

Economist, John Kenneth Galbraith said, “It is not necessary to advertise food to hungry people, fuel to cold people, or houses to the homeless.”

No one had to sell clients at the Drop-In to come and partake of Sunday’s meals. For most, eating at the Drop-In is a given. It is all they can afford. With the arrival of les Marmitons, however, eating became a gastronomic adventure that pleased the palates, warmed the hearts and filled bellies with exotic tastes that awakened imaginations to the possibilities of life beyond a homeless shelter.

“I used to go to fine restaurants. Before my addiction got the better of me,” said one client. “Tasting the food today reminds me of what is possible if I stay clean.”

There wasn’t an empty seat all day on the 2nd floor of the Drop-In, and, as another client said after sitting back from a satisfying lunch of Baked Chicken Breast with Mushroom Sauce, Tomato & Yello Pepper Wedges, Baby Vegetables and Rice Pilaf, “Why leave when there’s more of this to come? I appreciate the meals I get everyday, but this is amazing.”

Feeding 1200 to 1500 people is not for the faint of stomach. For Drop-In chef, Cindy, it is a daily undertaking. With a budget of seventy-five cents a person per meal, Cindy possesses an uncanny ability to juggle and organize, and a remarkable proficiency at some slight of hand that includes stretching a meal prepared for 800 to fill the bellies of two to three hundred more.

As Glenn Comm of les Marmitons pointed out, “We had a budget of $15,000 and 3 tons of food while Cindy has to try every day to feed the thousands with the equivalent of five loaves and two fishes. I am humbled by her dedication.”

On Sunday, Cindy opened up her kitchen to 40 amateur chefs and their families and friends. At times, there didn’t appear to be room to beat an egg, but nonetheless over the sixteen hours members of les Marmitons were on site, she kept the kitchen on track and organized amidst what appeared at times to be chaos. Between ensuring there were enough plates to feed the overflow, scrambling to clear tables, keep coffee flowing and meals cooking, Cindy worked with her team of volunteer chefs to ensure the day passed without any broken eggs thrown on the kitchen floor in frustration.

It was a day to remember and one clients and staff will continue to replay in their minds and on their tastebuds. As the applause at the end of each meal showed, les Marmitons served up a first-class day of culinary delight that pleased the palates of everyone in attendance.

Thank you to all the members of les Marmitons, their families and friends. You make a difference.

Thank you also to Coca-Cola for their donation of an extra 30 cases of pop – quenching the thirst is an integral part of feeding hungry souls.

Sysco Food Services of Calgary, Inc. also stepped up to the plate and upgraded the order for AA beef to AAA. Going a cut above gave clients' spirits a lift and made chewing easier for those for whom dental care is a luxury, not a way of life.

Also on the gratitude list is the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) who kindly made its John Ware Kitchen, one of the clubs two regular venues, available to club members to use for their Saturday preparations. Without their help, along with two instructors who participated in the Sunday event, les Marmitons would not have been able to deliver such superb culinary delights on Sunday.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Come Together

Written by: Heather M. Night Staff, Intox

We stood in a circle like a grieving family and took turns washing our bodies with the smoke of his soul. One at a time we did the washing motion, some of us as tears rolled down our cheeks. My eyes glanced around watching the pain in their eyes as they folded their fingers together and let their hands hang in front of their bodies. I had never smudged before. We watched the shell as the grass slowly burned down to nothing. We stood in silence as we watched his soul climb to heaven...

My last memory of him was shared with the circle: We had a stack of gifts from the Christmas Wish List waiting to be claimed in the back room. I felt like Santa delivering some of them to the clients I knew who came in that night. I understand now why that big man in red is so jolly. The way their faces lit up and their lips parted cheek to cheek made me thankful for the giving people of Calgary.

He came in earlier than usual that night and slept in row 4 close to his friends. He awoke at 2am to get a drink of water and I jumped up to get his Christmas gifts from the back room. I brought them over to him as he sat on his mat. He smiled and said "thank you".

I perched on the table at the entrance of Intox where I sit sometimes in the middle of the night and scan the sleeping clients. I crossed my legs and watched him open his gifts. He unwrapped a winter hat and slowly placed it on his head. Ever so carefully, he took a winter scarf out of the box and slowly wrapped it around his neck. He treasured each gift as he opened them with such precision. He looked so happy, so content, so beautiful. The whole room was still.

His breath always smelled of Listerine and he was always smiling and the drinking slowly broke down his body and he died from hemorrhaging and we all really miss him.

This morning it felt like my greatest gift working at the Drop-In is just to love them. It felt like enough...and maybe it is.

Written by: Heather M, Night Staff, Intox

Friday, January 11, 2008

It’s a Miracle

Last night I went to visit my mother in the hospital where she’s been since a fall on New Year’s Eve brought her down. As I walked along the corridor towards my mother's ward, I passed a small seating area where four people were sitting chatting, quite loudly, about the trouble with health care.

I haven't experienced the negative side of health care. My mother is receiving excellent care. The nurses are supportive. They're helpful and they continually go out of their way to ensure every patient feels comfortable, cared for and part of the going's on in the unit. It can't be easy. It's a lock down geriatric ward. Patients cannot leave without permission or someone in attendance. Some, as my mother says, 'are out of their minds' and difficult to work with. And yet, the staff remain professional, courteous and committed at all times.

I think it is a miracle that so many people want to work in health care. They are short-staffed, under-budgeted, under-resourced and under constant criticism from 'all of us'. In spite of that, they remain committed to delivering superior service to every person who walks through the door.

The same can be true of most aspects of any service provider in the public sector, such as the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre. We continually struggle to manage increased demand with declining resources under the scrutiny of many who believe we are a contributor to the problem, not a solution. Yet, a review of our forty-seven year history demonstrates we have successfully helped thousands of individuals end homelessness, one person at a time.

Since our inception in 1961, we have operated under a mandate of continuous innovation to ensure the services we deliver meet the needs of our clients while addressing the many systemic issues that drive individuals into homelessness. Where once we offered only a bowl of soup and a meal, we evolved our services to include night shelter and then 24 hour service. We were the first agency in the city to incorporate transitional housing into its programs and with Bridgeland Manor, we offer the only community-based supported living facility in Canada for homeless seniors.

At the Drop-In, we recognize that homelessness is not just a physical condition. To ensure we help our clients find constructive solutions to the issues that need to be addressed for homelessness to end in their lives, we provide counseling, job-readiness training programs, legal assistance, and health care services in-house. Recently, in recognition of our constant priority of helping clients address their health, we hired a doctor to assist our in-house nurse with client care.

In discussing health care, we seldom talk about the stories of lives saved. We seldom hear about families who have remained intact because of the miraculous work of the individuals providing them service through whose knowledge, skill, and access to the right resources, have played an instrumental role in healing someone's life.

On New Year’s Day, when my eldest daughter's friend was critically injured by a car, the prognosis was not good. Today, he's out of ICU and is awaiting a bed outside the Trauma Unit where he has spent the past few days. He's walking on crutches, and as his girlfriend told my daughter yesterday, "He's going to be okay."

He has youth on his side to help his healing. He also has superb care, from the EMS team at the scene of the accident and the police sergeant who arrived within moments of the 9-1-1 call being placed, to the Emergency Room staff who fought so hard to save him and the ICU team who wouldn't give up. The care he received saved his life. The care he is receiving today will ensure he will continue to prosper in his life moving forward.

At the Drop-In, we seldom talk about the lives of those who have been helped by what we do. When you're in the business of saving lives, there is no time to spare counting accolades. There's also the issue of privacy. Sometimes, people don't want to reveal that their lives have been in such disarray. Sometimes, in their desire to leave the past behind, they don't give a forwarding address. And, sometimes, just as the health care system saves lives, what we do is simply our work.

In our work, miracles happen every day that only we see. "A miracle, " I recently read in a letter from a friend, "is not the suspension of natural law, but the operation of a higher law."In health care, in the care of homelessness, in the police service and public service sectors all over, miracles happen every day because we are committed to making a difference in other people's lives. We are committed to working to a higher law, a greater purpose that serves others.

Every day, someone walks away from homelessness into a situation that will pave the way to their living a self-sufficient and productive life again. Every day, someone gets into rehab. Someone gets the mental health care they need. And every day, thousands of lives are saved because shelters like ours are there to provide them a safe place to catch their breath, find their balance and reclaim their sense of direction.Every day, in hospitals throughout the city, more people are healed than those who cannot be healed. Most find the treatment, help and support they need to cure whatever ails them.

And every day, people chat, like the group I overheard in the hospital lobby, about what's not going right, about all that's wrong. They sit on their chairs and complain, and never get down to the business of making a difference. They miss the miracles and get lost in their criticisms.

The miracle is people continue to make a difference in spite of the complaints. It's not a miracle the health care system works. It's not a miracle public service works. It's hard work, commitment and a dedication to helping those in need by people convinced they will make a difference by staying focused on their purpose. They leave the rhetoric to those who would paint them with the brush of failure. They don’t have time for failure, they’re too busy getting the job done.

Life is a miracle. What I do with it is up to me. How I respond. How I react to circumstances, to other people, to trials and tribulations -- that's all my doing. When I look at my life as a miracle, I see miracles reflected all around me. So, for today, I shall walk through each moment celebrating the miracle of life around me. For today, I shall remember, I have a choice, to complain about life, or celebrate it. I can look for rainbows dancing in my wake or fault-lines waiting to trip me up.

Will you sit on your chair and complain, or will you get up and make a difference?