‘Sleigh bells ring’ – but are you really listening?

By: Merry Perino

Brittany Brooks/ Brock Press

Brittany Brooks/ Brock Press

The holidays are meant to be spent family and friends surrounded with love, filled with food and in homes that are abundant with warmth. However, for some this holiday season will mean finding anyway to stay warm while braving the sub-zero temperatures.

Donna Paterson is the resident manager of the St. Catharines Booth Centre and has been busy planning for the holiday season efforts for the Salvation Army.

You may have already passed by members of the Salvation Army who are running the kettle campaigns as a way to continue fundraising for the community. They are usually festively dressed, are singing or ringing sleigh bells and are standing next to a collection container at retailors, businesses and even busy streets.

“The kettles are our major source of fundraising. The money stays where it’s collected, so if you donate in St. Catharines it stays in St. Catharines” said Paterson.

  Then this money is used throughout the year and for various programming such as anger management classes or services within the Booth Centres.

I was able to go visit one of these kettle collectors at the Pen Centre on Sunday and take over the station for a bit. Now, I’m always full of Christmas spirit, starting as early as midnight on Nov 1, when I’m usually still in my Halloween costume but eagerly changing my name on Facebook from Mary Perino to “Merry PerinSnow”- a tradition that leaves my friends both confused and annoyed. There’s no season I love more than the holidays and I’ve found that my spirited efforts throughout the days of November can make the daylight saving, exam-taking, weather-turning weeks seem just a little bit brighter. So while I stood inside Zehr’s, ringing that sleigh bell for hundreds of people, I really did feel like I had reached elf-status… but something felt off.

As the holidays approach, it’s time to give back and the Salvation Army Booth Centre in St. Catharines is hosting a Christmas Dinner in an effort to say thanks and lend a hand.  For over 60 years the Salvation Army locations in the greater Niagara region have been helping those in need of a place to stay, a meal to eat and a life to live through the support of the community. With local stations all across the region from Grimsby to Fort Erie, the Salvation Army is a nationwide effort that aims to increase the hospitality and support for those in need. While each establishment is different, most places offer family and community services and increase the dedication time during the holidays. These efforts include gathering toys and hampers, gifts cards and holiday giveaways.

The Booth Centre in St. Catharines is tucked away on the corner of Church and Calvin just a few minutes way from the downtown core; if you blink you just might miss it, but to several members of the community, the Booth Centre is a place to call home for a little while. The hostel has welcomed homeless men over the age of 18 since 1958. At the time of establishment, there wasn’t a need for women’s shelters and it would have been unusual to come across at the time, (although there are several women’s shelters in the area now like YWCA, Gillian’s place as well as shelters for everyone like Southridge and the Hope House).

The Booth Centre offers services for stay and respite, for a few days, to a month, or even longer in some cases. Support is catered to individual needs and services include meals, shower, laundry and a safe place to stay for a good night’s sleep. There is a no tolerance policy for drugs or alcohol where residents are staying and there are curfews to abide by. The Booth Centre also has counsellors on site who are able to help the men, connecting them back with their family, offerings transportation back to their homes, stabilizing them, providing clothing and referring to several detox programs. The Booth Centre staff helps the men with counselling, connecting them back to family, transportation, clothing and referrals to other community agencies.

Brittany_02“Homelessness is very complex. Unfortunately, many people, from all walks of life have to rely on our services. Addictions and mental health issues are common, however often it’s just a string of bad circumstances. There are also those who have had a breakdown of family relationships, illness, others have lost their job. Many people in Niagara are only a paycheck away from being homeless.  We are not here to judge. We are here to provide support when it’s needed and treat people with dignity,” said Paterson.

“People ask me ‘how can you work here?’ But it’s so rewarding; they may think it’s too tough, but you’re really making a difference whether you’re offering just a shower or a meal… a cup of coffee can make the biggest difference to someone,” said Paterson.

Paterson has been working with her team for the past few weeks to start preparing for the Booth Centre’s Christmas Dinner. “The event used to be held in the basement, which is a 50- person dining hall, but it’s grown so much over the years that we’ve had to relocate. We serve up to 800 people” said Paterson.

This year on Wed. Dec 11 the team from the Salvation Army will take over the Westminster United Church on Queenston Street, for the Booth Centre’s Annual Community Christmas Dinner. This free event provides men, women and children in our community the opportunity to celebrate this joyous time of year with a delicious turkey dinner, musical entertainment as well as a visit from Santa.  Each child who attends will also receive a gift from Santa Claus.  The Centre is helped by the Niagara Catholic School Board whose students help Chef Michael Gretzinger prepare the meal. Other community businesses also help out with the donation of pies, coffee, toys and poinsettias. Every year, faithful volunteers return to help serve and welcome guests.  For some of the 700 people that are served, this might be their only chance of a Christmas meal.

The work of The Salvation Army doesn’t stop there.  Throughout the Niagara Region, The Salvation Army provides resources like food banks, clothing, coat programs, anger management for adults and children, a mobile outreach which is trucks that go around the Niagara Region that people who are homeless can connect with them.  Most recently The Salvation Army in Fort Erie provided emergency service support following a fire in a rooming house.

However, it’s the Christmas work that The Salvation Army is well known for.  In the Community and Family Service centres in Fort Erie, Port Colbourne, Welland, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines, preparation for distribution of hampers, gift cards and toys is underway.  The services they provide wouldn’t be possible without the support of the community.

Flashback a few days to when I had to venture off to the Booth Centre by myself on a Friday.

Brittany_03I’ve had a long week and I’m ready to interview Donna but then run home to my Christmas onesie and call it a day. After struggling to find the hidden building, Siri finally directs me to the right spot and I have to be buzzed inside the old facility. It’s a little bleak inside but has friendly people and several decorations—even a Charlie Brown style Christmas tree.

While I wait in reception, early as usual, I begin to look around. Peeking into a room I see several older men sitting, sleeping or just staring off into space. Feeling a little uncomfortable — because at the time I didn’t know I was even in a homeless shelter—I just thought I was at a place of business. Within moment I’m offered a chair and conversation from some fellow waiting room civilians before I’m called into to speak with Donna. After a few minutes, one of the gentlemen from the room slowly makes his way up to the reception desk.

He looks tired, his arms are heavy and he’s having a hard time walking straight, but his eyes are kind; his smile warm and he asks the receptionist, “Got any spare socks back there?”.  It’s five degrees below outside and this man doesn’t have socks on.

“Of course!” she happily replies and while she goes to look around the small office the man looks relieved and the two engage in some small talk.  Before I could hear any more of their conversation, Donna’s ready for me. During our interview, I find myself distracted and can’t get that overheard conversation out of my head. Throughout the four years of living in this city, I’ve never had to go a day without a meal, a place to stay or a pair of socks, albeit it sometimes I steal them from my roommates. I probably won’t ever see that man again and it’s probably not the last time he uses the services of the Booth Centre to make it through another day. There’s something about the exchange that leaves me changed. As I leave the building there’s a pulling in my stomach, a feeling that I can’t shake.

Flash-forward to my impromptu kettle campaigning at the Pen Centre.

Hundreds of locals walk past me and the metal frame that holds the collection container as I give smiles to strangers and say ‘thank you’ as every coin hits the plastic bottom of the circular dome. I keep waiting for a moment of real Christmas spirit to hit me- something to show me what the meaning of this commercialized holiday is all about and give me a driving and hopeful thesis for this article. However, the hours come to end and my hands are tired, my ears are ringing and I’ve had enough people watching for one day; I have no real punch line to add to my article, or so I thought.

Brittany_04That Christmas moment- it never came to me while I was kettling; it wasn’t in the faces of people walking by or in the sound of the bells or even in the heart-warming satisfaction of seeing the amount of money being raised fill the container, because I already saw it. A simple act of kindness made that one man’s day. In addition to the generosity of the good people at the Booth Centre he gets to make it through another night.

Leaving the Booth Centre, I quietly make  my way towards the downtown terminal, headed to one of my two homes—both the student house which I share with the most fantastic roommates and the loving, warm and familiar one back home—and I start to think about how many pairs of socks, among other material possessions, I have lying around my rooms. If all of my socks are dirty, I can either wash them or even go buy a new package, but one good pair of socks made that man’s day. I’ve never witnessed a more perfect holiday moment than that.

The holidays come once a year, but the Salvation Army supports communities throughout every season. For more information visit salvationarmybooth.com

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