It has been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the closure of soup kitchens and other organizations that delivered services to the less fortunate in the community, but Cyndi Stevens, Executive Director of the Port Alberni Friendship Center (PAFC), is proud to say that they have never closed their doors. The PAFC continues to deliver comfort and services to anyone needing it, safely, under the protocols set out by the Provincial Health Officer.
But staff and volunteers have had to overcome many challenges in order to safely deliver services in a way that is safe for both clients and staff.
Approximately 50 people come to the PAFC every day looking for a warm, dry place to pick up comfort items and a nice, hot meal.
Stevens said that the local soup kitchen was forced to close its doors in March 2020 when the pandemic began. Working with the Salvation Army, the PAFC prepares meals on-site, packages them up and hands them out one-by-one from their reception desk, keeping the Provincial Health Officer’s social distancing guidelines in mind.
Along with hot food, the PAFC has received donations of clothing and cash from the community and other comfort items from organizations like Soap for Hope Canada. Soap for Hope collects toiletries and gently used, cleaned towels, bedding and pillows, mostly from hotels. The items are repurposed and donated to people that need them.
According to Stevens, people that are underhoused and underserved often come into PAFC from the streets or encampments, cold and wet. At PAFC they can pick up a packet of toiletries and, if available, a dry set of donated clothing. “They change into a fresh set of clothes and throw their old, wet clothes away because, well, there’s no where to wash them,” she said.
With government grants, charitable foundation donations and other sources, the PAFC staff is able to serve up meals like the hot roast beef lunch on Mar. 18. Stevens says hearty, hot meals are made every weekday, Monday to Friday and are usually served around 11:30 a.m.
The PAFC also gives away food bags and delivers food hampers to seniors and shut ins. “We deliver the food for safety reasons,” Stevens said, adding that seniors are safer when they stay home, lowering their risk of exposure to illness.
The food bags, Stevens said, usually contain healthy snacks like fruit to help support nutritional needs of the people that may not have access to healthy food.
Stevens noted that there has been an up tik in demand for food hampers. The service has expanded to include low-income families.
The PAFC is beginning to build warming backpacks for the underhoused. They are looking for donations of new or gently used socks, gloves/mittens, light rain jackets, and sleeping bags to fill the back packs. “People come in soaking wet and need to change,” she noted.
Stevens says she hopes government will begin to focus on mental health resources. People, she said, are struggling with the social isolation aspects of the pandemic. “People are suffering with loneliness and depression,” said Stevens, adding this is when addiction happens. “A lot of underserved an underhoused people got like that because of things like depression – how do we support them?” she asked.
After 34 years at PAFC, Stevens says she loves her job and is passionate about helping people. “I came from poverty, foster care and an addicted parent – I know what it is like,” she said.
Her message is that there is hope for everybody. “We live in a really good community,” she said.