A famous Fred Rogers quote, referencing his mother’s advice to him, still rings true: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”

The Orillia, Ont., Salvation Army’s canteen truck epitomizes the heart of that belief. The mobile truck allows helpers to help those in need in the community.

“It’s our street ministry program,” explains Ron Vandeursen, the street team co-ordinator for The Salvation Army’s Orillia Corps.

Ron’s wife, Marilyn, works in the local Salvation Army community and family services food bank.

“This is kind of an extension of what she does out of family services,” Ron explains.

The canteen truck sets up in the parking lot across from Tim Hortons on Colborne Street and is there, without fail, on Friday nights, from 6-8 p.m., regardless of weather or pandemic.

“We serve a hot meal to whoever wants to drop by,” says Ron.

“If we can serve a hot meal downtown, we can serve the same thing to a larger number at a disaster site." RON VANDEURSON

Part of the Army’s emergency disaster services, the canteen truck provides people in crisis and emergency personnel with immediate, on-scene assistance with food, water, shelter and clothing in addition to emotional and spiritual care.

“For example, the tornado we had in Barrie, Ont., we were able to go over there and bring (the canteen truck) with us,” Ron says. “We’ve also used it in the floods in Ottawa and Minden, Ont. These are opportunities for us to set up shop in the middle of nowhere, within a disaster zone, and start cooking meals. Anywhere between 500 to 1,000 meals can be cooked out of it.

“If we can serve a hot meal downtown, we can serve the same thing to a larger number at a disaster site,” Ron states.

Last year, alongside their hot meals, they received the following donations to help in their work:

• 5,791 pizza slices (Little Caesars, Orillia)

• 3,405 Kentucky Fried Chicken pieces (KFC, Orillia)

• 3,885 pastries (Mariposa Food Market, Orillia)

• thousands of surplus buns and muffins (Costco, Orillia)

The Salvation Army’s Friday night street ministry is where volunteers can get necessary experience that may help them decide whether to participate in other crisis areas.

When the canteen truck first started seven years ago, they would serve 20 to 30 people on a Friday night.

“Unfortunately, the numbers keep going up. I would say, on average now, we’re serving between 175 and 180 people each Friday,” Ron says. “Last year alone, we served 8,400 meals.”

Asked if COVID had increased their numbers, Ron replies, “Two years ago, before COVID, we’d done about 6,700 meals. It’s jumped, I would say, close to 20 percent since the start of it all.

“There’s a need. More are homeless; more are at risk. More are losing their jobs. More are losing their homes. We’re hearing quite a bit now from those who are in rooming houses or have a bedroom—their places are being sold and they’re being put out on the street, pretty abruptly.

“At street level, we see the winter couch surfers who are part of that system losing their places as well, because their friends are losing their homes. So, there’s a huge increase there,” he explains.

“We’re also seeing young families attend Friday nights. It offsets a meal for the week. We normally have 10 or 12 children aged 0 to 15 years old; 30 or 40 who are ages 15 to 25; and then 40 to 50 families. Everyone else is pretty much individuals. That’s a typical Friday night.”

In addition to the food the canteen provides, volunteers also hand out clothing such as hats, socks and underwear, and can also provide sleeping bags.

The Friday night outreach group also provides a pastor for those who need a listening ear orsome guidance in practical or spiritual matters.

Reprinted from OrilliaMatters.com, April 9, 2022

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