[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.