If you believe the weather reports it’s -11 degrees Celsius outside tonight. For one woman waiting in the dark and freezing and rain outside the Saskatoon Food Bank & Learning Centre, it feels a lot colder.
By the time I see Anne (name changed for privacy reasons) she has been waiting in the cold for just under an hour. I could tell from the assortment of groceries carefully arranged on her motorized scooter that she had recently visited the food bank. I watched her from inside of my car, where I sat waiting for the engine to warm so I could drive away from a long day of work at the food bank. As I watched the woman she appeared to be nodding off to sleep, although it was hard to see through the heavy frozen rain falling.
I have to be honest. As I sat there watching her from inside my still-cold car there was a part of me that wanted to drive away. I was already late to pick up my kids from daycare, dinner needed to be made and I desperately wanted to get to my cozy little home before the weather worsened. A text message from a dear friend popped up on my phone. Drive safe, it read. I have so much support, I thought. Of course I couldn’t just drive away.
I approached and called out to the woman, “Are you okay?” She told me she was waiting for her bus and that it was very late. I invited her to wait in my car while I dialed the number for the wheelchair accessible bus service. As she navigated through the snow and into the front seat of my car I peered through her broken glasses and into her eyes. It was a very familiar look.
It was the same look I had seen just an hour earlier inside of the food bank office. We were about to lock the doors for the day when a man entered, his glasses also frosted over from the cold. “Is this where you go if you’re starving,” he asked. That familiar look in his eyes is one that I will never get accustomed to. It’s hard to describe, a mixture of desperation, anxiety and humility. My coworkers smiled warmly, “Yes, we can help”, they told him.
As we helped him pack his backpack with supplies you could sense his relief. He thanked us for our help and told us his story. He had badly broken his elbow and was unable to work while he waited for surgery. A paperwork error meant his disability assistance payments were delayed, and he had been living for some time without any income. He’ll be okay, I thought at the time. His elbow will heal and he’ll be able to work again. He’ll soon be back on his feet.
It may not be the same for Anne. As a senior with a disability, her options are very limited. While we chatted in the car she told me how excited she was to get bananas in her food basket that day. “I can’t eat gluten,” she said. “Fruit in the winter is such a treat.” I told Anne about the gluten-free food basket program the food bank would soon be offering and how it was started by a concerned community member. She was excited to hear about it, but it left me feeling unsettled. This woman shouldn’t have to rely on the food bank. It’s not fair that vulnerable people in our community should be forced to turn to charity just to have their basic needs met.
When I finally made contact with the bus service they told me the busses were running late due to the extreme weather. The person on the phone was very nice, and apologized for the trouble. But Anne wasn’t upset. “What can you do?” she said. “They’re doing their best”. I’m not sure I would have been so understanding.
It would be another 50 minutes that we waited together for the bus. Inside the car we chatted about our holiday plans and listened to the sound of the car engine humming and ice pellets hitting the windshield. Anne thanked me over and over and told me she could wait on her own. “I don’t want to be a bother”, she said. The truth is she wasn’t a bother at all. She was amazing. Her quiet strength, resiliency and underlying optimism left me feeling humbled and inspired. After all, my life is so easy. I have a whole network of people to turn to when I need help. I could order pizza for dinner. And just one quick call to my husband and he set off to pick up the kids from daycare...because we have two cars.
By the time the bus pulled up (nearly two hours after Anne started waiting) two more people had approached to ask if we needed help, one a neighbouring business owner who saw the abandoned scooter and the other a person I knew from the food bank’s learning centre programs. The bus driver helped Anne navigate her scooter onto the bus and apologized over and over for being so late. She seemed to really care about her.
When we said goodbye Anne threw her arms around me to give me a giant hug. “What would I have done without you?” she smiled.
As I drove away I thought about Anne, the man with the broken elbow, and all the people I met at work that day, some who came to use the food bank, and others who came to donate to the food bank. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I see amazing things every day. People who refuse to let their struggles define them. They are full of strength and hope in spite of their difficulties. And people who truly care. They care enough to help complete strangers, without ever seeing the tremendous impact of their kindness.
I’ve worked for over six years at the food bank. We receive over twelve thousand requests for food every month. That’s twelve thousand stories of families brave enough seek out support, and twelve thousand times our community has responded.
When I arrive at home I am greeted with more hugs and two little voices calling “Mommy!” I hold my children, but like so many other nights it feels more like they are holding me.