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Feb21ThuWhen the largest employer in Sydney, N.S., shut down before Christmas, The Salvation Army stepped in February 21, 2019 by Major Corey Vincent
On December 5, 2018, our staff was breathing a huge sigh of relief. With less than a month to go before Christmas, our holiday assistance preparations were nearly complete, our toy room was looking great and our Christmas hamper food orders were about to be placed. Little did we know that the next day we would find ourselves in the middle of a community crisis.
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On December 6, while browsing social media, I saw a post that said ServiCom, the largest employer in Sydney, N.S., was closing its doors for good and 600 people would be without work. Not believing the post, I asked my staff if they had heard anything, and then we saw another post saying that there were police cars in the ServiCom parking lot, escorting people from the building. I looked out the window at the ServiCom building, located across the road from Sydney Community Church on Inglis Street—the social media rumours were true.
Eighteen days before Christmas, hundreds of people were jobless, without any notice. Many of them had not been paid since November 18 and were now being told that they had been working for free—all the promises that they would get their wages were empty.
Leap of Faith
Seeing this scene unfold from my office, Nicole Maclean, our community ministries co-ordinator, and I decided that we would do whatever it took to love these employees and help ease the pain of this devastating blow. We didn’t have a plan or the resources to deal with this crisis, but we are a community church, so we stepped out in faith and immediately devised a plan.
Our first priority was to ensure that everyone had food to see them through this rough patch. Despite closing our food bank for the Christmas season, we decided to reopen our doors the next day for all ServiCom employees. Our food bank shelves were bare, but we believed that God would bless our efforts.
We posted a statement on social media, notifying the community of The Salvation Army’s plan to respond. Not only would we open our food bank, but we would also reopen our Christmas assistance program and toy room.
We never expected that our post would go viral within the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM). That evening, our social media page exploded with comments, likes and shares, confirming that our response to this crisis was desperately needed.
Call for Help
The next day, we officially began our efforts to assist the ServiCom employees, kicking off one of the busiest and most rewarding Christmas seasons on record for our church. We were already providing Christmas assistance for 300 families across Cape Breton—that number quickly grew to 900 families.
On the morning of December 7, I still didn’t know where we would get the resources to fill our food bank, provide Christmas dinner for 600 additional families and toys for an extra 250 children. But God was in control. Phone calls began to pour in from citizens who wanted to donate food, money and toys.
At 1 p.m., we opened our food bank and more than 200 people showed up for emergency assistance. Many of them had never been to a food bank. We stayed open until 10 p.m. that day to serve everyone. I have never seen such gratitude, patience and camaraderie.
The first phone call I received on December 7 was from Seaside Communications, informing me that their staff decided to take the funds that had been allocated for their Christmas party and make a donation to The Salvation Army’s ServiCom response. To my amazement, they gave $10,000.
This donation was the catalyst for many more. Upon hearing the news of Seaside’s generosity, the media began to report that The Salvation Army was front and centre in dealing with the ServiCom crisis, and all donations were to be directed to us. As the story made headlines in the Maritimes and nationally, we began to receive donations from across Canada and the United States.
While we were registering the hundreds of people who came through our doors for Christmas assistance, I was told that there were some executives from Sobeys in the church building who needed to speak with me. I had no idea what to expect. But after talking with them about our plan and the huge need, they told me that Sobeys would donate 600 Christmas dinners. I became very emotional and hugged them both. I then invited them into our church where hundreds of ServiCom employees were waiting to be registered. When we gave them the good news about the generous donation, the crowd erupted in applause and stood on their feet in appreciation.
Because of this donation, we could reallocate some of the funds we had received to meet other more pressing needs, such as heating, utilities, prescriptions, rent and so on. All needs would be assessed on an individual basis.
Service With a Smile
Every Christmas, we have one hamper packing night and one distribution day. This year, we needed two days of each. After placing some calls, we had two large shipping containers donated and placed on our parking lot and one large freezer trailer to store the 900 turkeys. There were so many moving parts, but with all of our volunteers and partners, everything ran smoothly.
On the ServiCom Christmas dinner distribution day, our parking lot became a drive-through. For many hours, our volunteers manned their stations, despite the cold, and ensured that everyone was served with a smile. On the second distribution day, we opened the church to our regular clients and ServiCom employees with children. The church filled quickly, and despite the long waits, people were grateful and patient.
Along with the Christmas assistance, we began to allocate the funds we received for the ServiCom crisis to respond to the ever-growing list of emergencies faced by the laid-off employees. We heard heart-wrenching stories of eviction notices, electricity cut-off notices, heating oil tanks running dry, repossession notices for vehicles, and people running out of medications. We had $150,000 to work with, and while that may seem like a large amount, when it is divided among 600 individuals, it does not seem like so much. We knew that we had to be wise with the money entrusted to us, while being fair to everyone in assisting with their individual needs.
On January 3, 2019, many ex-employees of ServiCom went back to work—the renamed Sydney Call Centre reopened under new ownership. This was the Christmas miracle that we had been praying for.
Indeed, there were many miracles this season. The biggest one was how, despite being unprepared and having limited resources, God used our community church to make a difference. He used our corps to help bring hope and relief to the broken of our community.
Major Corey Vincent is the corps officer at Sydney Community Church, N.S.
Letter of Gratitude
Excerpts from a letter sent to Sydney Community Church from a former ServiCom employee:
Greetings from a real fan and an admirer of your church and institution! Please accept my sincere thanks for taking care of the former ServiCom employees who lost their jobs.
Like my colleagues and supervisors, along with the administration, I, too, am going through financial, emotional and social impacts. But had you not stepped up to help us, the loss would have been immeasurable. Through the rough times, you have consistently, continuously and compassionately helped us all. Irrespective of our religion, colour and origin, you all have provided us much-needed and appreciated help.
You make Cape Breton and Canada a better place to live in and definitely enrich our lives by your service and presence.
Dr. Pushpa Rathor