Autumn Services has created V.I.P. HAPPYMEALS, a social and nutritional support program that provides healthy meals to seniors living in Fraser Lake in Northern BC. This program was started to support those seniors in the community during COVID-19 and to ensure that the community cares for its seniors who may be socially isolated. The pandemic has posed challenges for the Centre to remain in touch with and feed the seniors healthy meals.
“Eileen visited the Centre on Wednesday for her one-on-one lunch with staff. She breathed a big sigh when she arrived, saying she missed the place. When she left, she held the door and looked back, saying how much she missed meeting with her friends. She stretched her one hour into two, brushing off a family zoom meeting, commenting “I needed this”.
In 2015, the only grocery store in Fraser Lake closed, leaving some community members short on food supply. At the same time, Autumn Services created Food Share, a program built to assist families who found themselves in the position of not being able to access food. Going out to buy food wasn’t difficult for most, but for vulnerable people who didn’t drive, didn’t own a car or didn’t have snow tires, these were barriers. The trip out of Fraser Lake for groceries took an hour in either direction East or West, on winter roads, seven months of the year. With funding from the Four River Co-Op, and gifts of a fridge and freezer, Autumn Services established a pantry that offered food for free. There was never a budget to buy food for the pantry so the program relied on food donated by community members and other grocery outlets, such as the Co-Op which donated meats. Also, very generously, The Fraser Lake Men’s Shed provided $600 annually. Other funds were supplied by community members “who just walked into our centre and peeled some bills from their wallet” said Elaine Storey, Executive Director of Autumn Services.
To further bolster Food Share, a Soup & Bun program was started. Overhead costs were covered by selling the soups “by donation’ and operating once per week. Left-over soup was set aside for the Food Share clients. The need soon grew, and the program matched the growth by operating twice per week. At that time the program was serving 80 bowls of soup in Autumn Services Centre as well as providing food from the pantry for up to 15 shoppers each week.
Pre-COVID-19, the drop-in community centre , in general, was seeing between 50-120 visits a week. Also, pre-COVID-19, many visitors went to the Centre for the nutritious soups and ended up staying for several hours for “the heart-enriching social opportunity” says Elaine. 90 year old Fraser Lake senior May and her friend Eileen, both lifetime members of the Centre, are two of the seniors who benefitted immensely from the Soup & Bun meals. According to one of the creators of the Centre (as well as Fraser Lake Mayor) Sarrah Storey, not all seniors find making meals for themselves easy or they may refuse to eat alone. In 2015, May and Eileen helped with the renovations on the first Centre’s building. Since they couldn’t paint and stand on ladders, they chose to help in their own way by bringing plates of sandwiches for the renovation workers. They would sit in chairs in the middle of the gyprock dust and imagine what the finished results would be.
Today, during COVID-19, and due to social distancing guidelines, the program has changed in both the numbers and method served. Due to an immense and growing need, there are now 200 bowls of soup and 35 (and growing) large food hampers filled to the brim with fresh meats, vegetables, fruits, cereals and other nutritious foods. All the soups and hampers are delivered, cost-free, by volunteers directly to seniors in their homes. Gearing up for the increase in soups and hampers has resulted in some changes that have been required to satisfy the need. Renovations, including electrical components, that had already been underway, were completed ahead of schedule, a cook was hired, additional pots and pans were purchased, and more volunteers were recruited.
“Alex says one of the main reasons he volunteers with the program is because he knows firsthand how it feels to receive anonymously from a program that is looking out for others.”
During COVID-19 there have also been some one-to-one lunches held by invitation. Special guests May and Eileen have been treated to separate special lunches cooked just for them. Other seniors have also received invitations to one-on-one time including one senior who was served cupcakes for his 80th birthday. There is also special provision made for a senior couple who arrive in their car for a curbside visit, she being too ill and immobile. Coffee too has been served at the Centre for isolated seniors just needing a conversation. Social distancing and masks are all in place. “Everyone naturally gravitates to our Centre” says Executive Director, Elaine.
One of the biggest challenges for the program has been funding, yet Autumn Services has developed a motto “Don’t let the lack of money stop the dream”. Over its 10 years of operation, the Centre has called upon members to further its programs. “Once we focus on yesterday’s problems and followed our feet in a forward motion, we always come out stronger and wiser on the other side.” says Elaine. This passion has translated into some very creative ways to keep the Centre self-sustainable. The funds raised for Autumn Centre in turn help to fund the COVID-19 soups and hampers program. For example, the Centre offers business services with fees for photocopying, internet access, etc. As well, the Centre has become a UPS pick-up/drop-off station which pays the Centre three dollars per package.
What the Autumn Centre V.I.P. HAPPYMEALS means to Mayor Sarrah Storey is that she likes “to see hope in people’s eyes”
Currently staffing consists of four hired staff, one summer student, and ten volunteers. Three volunteers drive, two order and organize food, two prepare bags for delivery and, three are dedicated specifically to the renovations.
Funding sources are provided by grants from the United Way of the Lower Mainland Emergency Community Support Fund, Newgold and Centerra Gold. As well, funds have been received from the Federal Covid-19 relief fund.