Last December, we planned a trip to Vancouver BC, and as usual, we wanted to incorporate volunteering into our itinerary. We were only going to be in town for 3.5 days, so we knew that we had to find a volunteer opportunity that would leave us with enough free time to explore the city. I reached out to so many different organizations to see if we could donate a half day of our time, but because the holidays were approaching, most organizations were already booked up with volunteers or else they didn’t have any opportunities available on the dates that we were going to be in town.
Just as I was starting to get bummed out by the idea that the opportunity to be a Vancouver volunteer might pass us by, I received a return call from someone at the Salvation Army asking what types of volunteer opportunities we were looking for. I told him that we were pretty flexible as we’ve participated in a wide range of service opportunities in the past both at home and while traveling abroad.
“Well, let me make some calls and see if there are some kettle ringer slots open,” he replied.
“What do kettle ringers do?” I asked.
“They stand outside and ring a bell in an effort to seek contributions for the Salvation Army,” he explained.
You mean like the people who stand out front of the grocery store? Four hours is a long time to stand outside in the freezing cold ringing a bell!
“Well, I was actually hoping that we could do something like feed the homeless or something along those lines,” I tried to clarify, knowing that kettle-ringing wasn’t going to be a good fit for us.
He told me that he’d check with the Belkin House, a homeless shelter and transitional housing facility, to see whether there were any opportunities available and get back in touch within a few days.
Sure enough, a few days later, he put us in touch with Belkin’s Food Services Manager, Alvin Chong, who confirmed our time slot. Sigh of relief!
On the morning of our volunteer day, we woke up early and ate breakfast at our hotel before walking a few short blocks to Belkin House. I don’t know what type of facility I’d envisioned, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a facility that was so large and modern. I didn’t take pictures of the inside of the facility out of respect for the privacy of the residents living there.
Alvin greeted us at the front desk and proceeded to give us a rundown of the types of free programs and services that Belkin House offers. The facility’s shelter program allows the homeless to stay there for 30 days max with three meals per day, while the residence program is designed as transitional housing and allows residents to stay for a maximum of 18 months without any meals included. However, residents can volunteer or participate in workshops in order to earn meals. Otherwise, they have to pay $2.50 per meal which is very reasonable.
After we had time to ask Alvin questions about Belkin’s services, he gave us a tour of the facility which also houses a chapel that welcomes all faiths, a rooftop community garden, and computer rooms and classrooms that are used for the various self-improvement and employment skills programs that Belkin provides.
After our tour, Alvin put us to work in the kitchen where we joined two other volunteers, one cook, and a head chef. We helped to prep salad bowls, chicken sandwiches, and poutine while listening to holiday tunes blare from the radio.
Our small talk raised the other volunteers’ curiosity about the fact that we were spending some of our vacation time doing community service, but they were welcoming nonetheless. They told me that they volunteer regularly at Belkin because they like to be involved in their local community. Both of these ladies immigrated to Vancouver – one from the Philippines, and the other from Iran. They wanted to know our impressions of their city, and we genuinely didn’t have one negative thing to say about Vancouver apart from the constant cold.
Soon enough, noon rolled around and it was time to take our spots on the serving line as the homeless began to line up outside of the kitchen. Some of them have special nutrition needs which are noted next to their names on a wall chart near the serving line. Lunch service whizzed by as the residents are only given a half-hour window for lunch. Alvin advised that the half-hour mealtimes for breakfast and lunch, and an hour for dinner, help to foster a sense of community because it forces everyone to congregate for meals at the same time.
After lunch, we packed up the food and wiped down the dining hall’s tables and chairs. Alvin returned to the kitchen to explain a new idea that he’s implementing into Belkin’s food program – microwavable meals. He showed us the machine that’s used to seal the plastic on the microwavable trays. I told him that I love the idea because it gives residents the chance to purchase meals for a minimal cost and enjoy them upstairs in their rooms where they have access to microwaves.
Soon enough, we returned our aprons and hairnets, said our goodbyes, and Alvin thanked us for our service as we made our way back out into Vancouver’s biting cold. It was a successful morning, and the rest of the afternoon was ours to continue to explore and get to know Vancouver better. But we left knowing that whenever we return to Vancouver, we always have a place to serve.
You can read more about Belkin House and our time volunteering there in the April 2013 issue of Edible Vancouver.