For Mary Jane Mitchell, it was like Jesus Himself providing miracles of abundance.
Hundreds braved the snow and cold for the third annual Uplift Day of Mercy on Sept. 22 at St. Alphonsus Parish and the Eastwood community hall in inner-city Edmonton. The Catholic Social Services-sponsored event offers free haircuts, socks, coats, family portraits, and bike repairs along with a hot meal to those facing hard times.
“It’s just like how Jesus fed the 5,000 people,” Mitchell said as she picked up a new coat just in time for the wintery weather. “He fed everybody. Only thing is that there was no clothing there, but five loaves and two fish, and he fed everybody. It’s just like it keeps coming and coming, and more people come and more people get blessed.”
People were lining up outside more than an hour before the Uplift Day of Mercy began. By 11 a.m., more than 300 had arrived and more than 100 volunteers were ready to help.
One woman found her way into the church at 8:30 a.m.
“She came knowing very specifically what she wanted and was ready to go. We weren’t, but she had a warm place to sit,” said Deanna Key, an organizer of the Uplift Day. “She wanted a haircut, she wanted to have a hot meal, and then she also wanted to have the opportunity to shop.”
Inside the church, those in need were served a free meal of ravioli with chicken and mushroom sauce, vegetables, cookies, bananas and juice. They also had a chance to browse and choose which services they wanted.
CSS reports that attendance was down this year. Only 550 were registered to receive items and services, compared with 850 last year.
Some may have been turned away by the bad weather – and others may not have registered at all, said Laura Ruddock, a spokesperson for CSS.
Nevertheless, the need is great. The city estimates there are 1,500 to 2,000 homeless people in Edmonton, and others may be among the working poor. Over 48,000 renter households spent more than 30 per cent of their income on housing costs in 2016, and a growing number are paying 75 to 100 per cent of their income on housing.
The event was also an opportunity for people who are struggling with mental illness to make connections and access resources, such as CSS Mercy Counselling services, which were on site.
“We recognize that there are many people in Edmonton who are struggling, oftentimes with the most basic of needs — food and clothing,” said Key. “The volunteers have stories and so do the guests,” she said. “If we start listening to one another, we realize that we’re all the same.”
The pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish said some members of his community are struggling.
“Our neighbourhood is in great need,” said Father Andrew Leung. “As a pastor and the local priest in this area, the need is great and this is the perfect opportunity for the Church to welcome those that are around the community.”
Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith called the Uplift Day “a concrete manifestation of the Church in action, of the Gospel proclaimed in deed.”
Without it, Loretta, a single mother, and her 14-year-old daughter would struggle to have jackets, clothes and underwear.
“I’m just very grateful. Big-hearted people like this are hard to find,” said Loretta, who declined to give her last name. “It’s a blessing because people like me and most others that are on a limited budget can’t afford to get this. So it does help us feel loved and cared for.”
Volunteers say it’s a chance to help in any way they can – and they benefit as well.
“It’s just a good positive experience for everybody,” said Chris Stambaugh of Burwell School of Photography, who has taken part in the event since it first started in 2016. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for the school’s students to practise and to help some people who could not otherwise afford a portrait session.”
And Catholic Social Services could not run the Uplift Day of Mercy each year without its volunteers and partners, says Troy Davies, the agency’s chief executive officer.
“For me, some of the highlights have been interacting with the folks, being able to just have a conversation with them and just being able to see some of the smiles on the faces of people as they get a haircut, as they get a picture taken, as they’re served a hot meal.”