[From the December edition of The Fourth and One Fifth}
BY DAVID SHEFFIELD
Each year when December rolls around, I’m reminded of the words of Charles Dickens. No, not a line from one of his famous Christmas stories, it’s the opening paragraph of his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, that comes to mind. From my perspective as a Community Outreach Worker spending time with people who live in poverty, this season truly is “the best of times” for some of us and “the worst of times” for too many others.
Whether it’s the expectation of gifts given to children, family re-united, or celebrations around a ta-ble fi lled with plenty, if we’re ever going to hope for something better to happen in our lives, the Christmas season seems to ignite that hope. It must be some sort of universal yearning that causes even the person who’s too jaded to buy into happy ending Christmas specials, to somehow allow themselves a little hope at this time.
For anyone living in poverty, the messy realities of life compete with pretty lights and piped-in carols and make for a particularly difficult time. The public excesses of the shopping and feasting season are painful reminders of what’s missing. Poverty comes in variety of packages, and while material poverty is the most immediate, loss of family, community, culture and spirit leave significant empty spaces inside of us. Christmas seems to have the ability to conjure up memories of innocent childhood delight for some, and for others, tragic reminders of abuse, violence and hunger.
One December when I was, maybe, 11 or 12, I remember discovering that Richard, a likeable young man that my family had gotten to know, was living in a shed with few warm clothes. The unheated building belonged to some of his relatives, who were doing their best to help him out, but their house was already crowded and they were at the limits of their resources. Family breakdown, lack of employment opportunities and the onset of winter had forced him to take refuge where he could.
Although my parents had little to spare, they were able to help out with some warm clothes and food for Richard that winter. But that face-to-face encounter with desperate poverty on my doorstep has stayed with me. I wish I could say that sad stories from my childhood were as distant as a Dickens tale, but I can’t. I’ve recently been working with a man who found himself past middle-age, out of work, without shelter, transportation or phone access. He’d already been living this way for a few months when he asked for help.
After we found a single room to rent, it took us another month of navigating the system before he could move into it. Now he’s trying to fi gure out how to get on his feet again with resources of $200/month left, after he pays his rent. Hopefully, this Christmas will feel a little less like “the worst of times” for him.
In the course of going out and spending time with people who are disconnected from existing services and living in poverty, not surprisingly, I encounter difficult, and sometimes tragic, stories. But very often, I am equally inspired and up-lifted by caring, sharing individuals in our community who are willing to step outside of their comfort zone to be present with a struggling person.
In recent weeks, I’ve seen many people offering time and money in support of their neighbours in a variety of ways. From Coats for Kids to the Salvation Army’s Food Hampers, from The Giving Tree to the Fare Share Food Bank, this community’s generosity is evident at this time of year. If you’re feeling like you want to reach out to some-one living in poverty during this season, there are still opportunities. Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day will be offered in two locations this year, providing a delicious meal to anyone who doesn’t have a better place to be on Christmas. St. Mark’s Anglican Church will be the Port Hope venue, while The Salvation Army Church will host the Cobourg dinner. Volunteers and donations are needed to make all of this happen.
Since buying a good winter coat is often a luxury for many, Green Wood Coalition, the outreach organization that I work with, is holding a One Warm Coat drive through December. One Warm Coat is dedicated to collecting and distributing clean, gently used winter coats--free of charge and without discrimination—directly to children and adults in our area. Coats may be dropped off at two locations, 93 Walton St., Port Hope and at Frank’s Pasta & Grill, 426 King St., E., Cobourg.
To get further details or make a financial donation, visit greenwoodcoalition.com.Whether we are in a position to help out materially or not, we all have the ability to acknowledge the existence of another person with a smile and eye contact. A small gesture can lessen the loneliness that is as much a part of this season as twinkling lights. Let’s hope for a Christmas season that isn’t “the worst of times” for anyone.
We are saddened to announce that our beloved Jeannie Irving passed away this week after a battle with cancer. Jeannie worked tirelessly with us since the early days of Green Wood Coalition, taking on the roles of community dinner coordinator and board member.
For all of us who knew Jeannie, many pictures come to mind to paint the portrait of a joyful, empathetic, generous, and always, energetic spirit.She will be remembered as a beautiful woman who did so much, and loved even more. Jeannie has left the best kind of mark on this community.
Details for her funeral on Tuesday, December 17 at 2:00 pm are posted at rossfuneralchapel.com.
Board member, Kelly Ambrose, shares a moment of remembering Jeannie that touched her this week:
Putting up the GWC Christmas tree with some Trinity College School students became a lovely thing today.
After assembling it, we quickly realized that it was was sorely lacking, and needed some Christmas decorations. After looking for decorations in the basement we tried to be creative, found some hair clips, earrings, feathers..made a few out of some craft supplies on hand. Still it looked pretty forlorn.
We considered going across the street to the Big Sisters Thrift Store to see if they had any decorations to sell, when a lady with a big smile appeared at the front door with a tentative knock. She brought in a big bag of Christmas decorations and said, "These are for Green Wood. A few weeks ago Jean Irving packed them up to bring them over for you."
What a lovely experience to think about Jeannie doing this for us. And the best part of all is the beautiful angel that we placed at the top for her to look down on us with love. We are still saying thank you to Jeannie for her blessings. We miss you so, Jeannie.
With the death of Nelson Mandela earlier this week, his many words of wisdom, borne of hardship, are being remembered. He had some strong words for poverty.
Mandela called freedom from poverty a “fundamental human right.” He considered poverty one of the greatest evils in the world, and spoke out against inequality everywhere.
“Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times — times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation — that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils,” he said.
He considered ending poverty a basic human duty: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life,” he said.
“While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”
In 1993, the UN designated October 17 the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, and later adopted the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger as the core of its Millennium Development Goals. The theme for this year is "Working together towards a world without discrimination: Building on the experience and knowledge of people in extreme poverty."
To mark the day, here are some things about poverty in Canada that you might not know: