How formerly homeless people are helping those in need — and helping themselves

A North York Jewish group’s meal box program is employing people who’ve experienced poverty

Talia Ricci · CBC News · 

Outreach worker Ryan Balser, left, hands Kim Mcdougall care packages to hand out around St. Clair Avenue West and Bathurst Street. (Grant Linton / CBC News)

There’s something special about preparing and receiving a homemade meal. 

For Maria Santos, program coordinator of a meal box program run by Ve’ahavta, a Jewish humanitarian organization based in North York, it’s especially meaningful when the meals go to people in need.

“People are busy with their own lives,” Santos told CBC Toronto. “They don’t really take a minute sometimes to think about what  someone is going through.”

The meals she’s preparing along with volunteers are for dozens of people around Toronto who are experiencing poverty and homelessness — a challenge that she can relate to.

“I was also homeless a few times in my life,” Santos said.

Maria Santos, left, program coordinator with the meal box program, prepares meals with volunteer Maxine Hermolin. (Talia Ricci / CBC News)
Now she’s gaining work experience through the meal box program, which provides work placements for individuals who’ve experienced poverty.

“When one has experienced those hardships it can sometimes take time to get back on your feet,” she said. “For me, taking this program is another step into more opportunities.”

The participants receive training to work in a kitchen, while giving back to the community.

Taking care of each other

After the meals are prepared, they are sent out along with clothing, winter jackets, shoes and toiletries in Ve’ahavta’s mobile outreach van. The outreach workers receive and respond to daily requests for support from various agencies across Toronto.

Ryan Balser is the outreach worker and drives the van, making deliveries alongside volunteers.

“I think the main thing we do is provide companionship and we look after people. We focus on their wellbeing; we check up on them,” Balser said.

Ryan Balser says he makes between six and 15 stops in one evening in the outreach van. (Grant Linton / CBC News)

The van goes out six nights a week and makes up to 15 stops. Balser also help to connect the clients with various support programs around the city, such as counselling and assistance with housing.

“It’s a great opportunity to kind of feed a person’s soul really, and see there’s good still happening in the world, people taking care of each other.”

‘It makes a difference’

At a stop at St. Clair West and Bathurst Street, one of Ve’ahavta’s clients picks up a meal package and a new winter coat.

“It’s a great organization, I’ve been coming here for the past month or so,” Ed said.

Ed, one of Ve’ahavta’s clients, says he’s been using the service for about one month. (Talia Ricci / CBC News)

CBC Toronto agreed to only use the client’s first name.

“In the winter it’s fantastic, I got a nice jacket here tonight.”

Ed says he currently has a place to live, but could be in a situation where he is homeless in the near future, and is happy to know organizations like this exist.

“It makes a big difference.”

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