Another Perspective on ‘Being Here’


A few weeks after I started this job, I met Maria.  She was part of a Guatemalan family that I registered. It was their first time to our program and they were accompanied by a support worker who spoke Spanish.

The husband and wife stared at me as I leafed through their paperwork— government issued for landed refugee claimants—and began to set up their file. They didn’t speak any English and were obviously uncomfortable with the entire process.  For the relatively small number of newcomer families that I deal with, this isn’t totally uncommon.  Many of them are using services like ours for the first time.  Sometimes there are cultural differences that make the whole experience a little overwhelming or stressful. I just assumed it was a new experience for them and carried on with the intake process, using their support worker as an interpreter.

“Do they have any food allergies or special diets?” I asked.

I wished I could speak Spanish so that I could better ease their worry and assure them we could help and were happy to do so.

“She is pregnant” the caseworker said.  “In fact, she is due next month. Would that make a difference?”

“OK.” I replied, “We’ll make a note of it.  Let her know that when the baby is here, we can give her some baby items as well, once a month.  In the meantime, we can put some extra things in the hamper that are appropriate for her.  Also, could you tell me their address?”

“Actually,” the caseworker replied, “they just arrived into the country a few hours ago – currently they are staying at a refugee shelter.”

I smiled, surprised, that they started their day in one country unsure of what would happen when they finished it in another. I completed the intake process with them, and eventually sent them away with their food after a volunteer had assembled it in the warehouse.

Just yesterday a man came in with a hospital mask. I must admit that as I began the intake process, asking him his birthday and his name, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To be frank, my first thought was that he looked a little odd. But I was wrong on all accounts. His record showed that it had been a while since he’d used our program, which was consistent with what he told me as we spoke. With little to gather from his record in our files, I learned instead about his story through the conversation that continued as I helped him check off his food slip.

‘High fat,’ I wrote in the special diet section. ‘Extra potatoes,’ I wrote under the potato icon. I learned that Jamie was undergoing radiation for a cancerous cyst that developed around his lips. The mask was to protect that area of his face, which I could only imagine was raw and sore because he had just come from a bout of treatment. I also learned that he wasn’t eating much—besides mashed potatoes—both because it was hard to chew and because his body was rejecting a lot of what he fed it. The cancer developed shortly after his mother’s Alzheimer’s took a turn for the worse. Now, struggling with his own ailing health while supporting his mother with hers, he was forced to turn to our program after being self-sufficient for many years. Regular work isn’t an option with his treatment schedule and his desire to support and care for his mother in the last stage of her life. Again I smiled, finished tailoring his food slip so he could receive what he needed most, and eventually saw him leave with his food after receiving it from one of our volunteers.

I love that our program acts as a safety net for people like Maria and Jamie who are food insecure. But food insecurity is only a symptom of a larger struggle. In other words, for Maria and her family, the struggle they face is about more than food. It’s about navigating through bureaucracies to have their refugee status recognized and about starting afresh in a new and unfamiliar country. The same is true for Jamie, who will face numerous challenges as he continues to undergo radiation and care for his aging mother.

When patrons access our program, we meet them at a particular moment in their lives. We catch glimpses of their lives and the steps that brought them to this place. We speculate about what could happen, joining with them to hope and dream for a better future. As an individual, it is a frustrating part of the job – I just don’t know how it will turn out. Unlike some of House of Friendship’s other programs, we are not setup to journey alongside an individual or family until they see their problems through; we are designed primarily to meet people where they are to address their food needs for a very short period of time. So for me, being here is wondering how our patrons’ stories will unfold once we have smiled, booked their hamper and sent them away with their food with whatever brief reassurances we can.

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