More Than a Meal

by John McAlister
Categories: Feature
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salvationarmy_vanAt a glance, The Salvation Army’s sandwich wagon gives little hint of the vital service it provides to Campbell River, B.C. But those who depend on it know better.

They see a rolling oasis of hope, travelling the streets every night, braving the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold, offering so much more than a sandwich and a cup of coffee.

And those who care can see the need has increased this past year.

Rick Miller spent years battling his drug addiction on the streets of Campbell River and Victoria before he turned his life around. He’s been clean for more than two years now and he’s been running the sandwich-wagon program since it started in January 2008.

Don’t Mess With Wednesdays

Last year, the aging van was a base of operations caring for hundreds of men and women. Staff and volunteers handed out 11,085 cups of coffee and 11,449 sandwiches, as well as sleeping bags, tents, coats, hats, gloves and more to those struggling to find shelter and food.

“It’s busier, a lot busier,” Rick says as he heads out to the first stop of the night.

“I’ve seen more young people,” adds Dawn Riley, a Salvation Army administrative assistant and regular sandwich-wagon volunteer. “More families are showing up. They have homes but all the money is going to cover rent and utilities and they haven’t got enough money to buy groceries to feed the kids.”

Dawn is fiercely loyal to the sandwich wagon, but that’s not the way she began.

“I started within the very first month,” she says. “I did it once and then I went home and cried. I told Rick I would never do it again. It was a different element of homelessness that I’d never seen.

“Then Rick phoned me. One of the volunteers had cancelled and he said, ‘Can you just come out for tonight?’ I did and I fell in love with it.

“Wednesday night is my night. Don’t mess with it. I’m out here.”

Apples and Oranges
Most of the people using the service can see and appreciate that commitment and love from Rick, Dawn and the other operators. Whenever the van stops for half an hour, it’s a place of hugs, tears and laughter, where people check up on each other. It’s a place to find a friendly face, someone who knows your name, someone who will listen to your triumphs and troubles.

“It’s a family,” Dawn says. “We give out a lot of information but a lot of the time we’re just listening. People just want that connection. Somebody’s listening.”

Rick states they’ve reduced the number of volunteers operating the van because people using the service were a little wary at first because they saw different faces every night.

“Now we have a structured crew that goes out and they see the same people all the time, and they’re more comfortable with that,” he continues. “I’ve been there. I still am, in a way, but today I don’t use drugs. They get to know me. They see where I am today in life and a lot of them appreciate that. They come to me as a mentor.”

Each crew includes a man and a woman to ensure that clients will find someone to talk to.

“We work with the clients on a one-on-one basis,” Rick explains. “Give them tools to use for progression in life. Send them in the right direction.”

Dawn says it’s only possible because Campbell River is such a giving community. The sandwich wagon is supported by many local businesses.

If she could ask for one thing for the sandwich wagon, it would be fruit.

“I’d like somebody to donate a box of fruit a week with oranges, the small ones,” she says. “We make up little fruit bags with watermelon, pineapple, oranges, grapes, whatever. Eight out of 10 clients would prefer to have the fruit instead of a donated doughnut or treat. Everybody wants bananas and oranges, because a lot of our people don’t have teeth. We make a joke out of it: if you have teeth, you get an apple. If you don’t, you can have an orange.”

“A Wonderful Thing”
A wide range of people use the service, people such as Cory, who has a job but is still struggling to make ends meet.

“It’s definitely great to have it here, especially for guys with a few days until payday that can’t really make it,” he says. “Having lunches to go to work. That’s what I use it for. It’s awesome.”

Ron, another client, agrees. He thinks the people of Campbell River should know that “there’s good people trying to do good things, who care, who are trying to make a difference, and they haven’t given up on anybody.”

One man says, “I was homeless here in town for three years and the sandwich wagon was a godsend. Without The Salvation Army, the sandwich wagon and the food bank, a lot of people would be in dire straits.”

The man offers one of the best appraisals of the night. “Some people, you look at them and they have no light in their eyes,” he says. “Then after you chat with them a bit, they forget about their problems and a little flicker of light comes on. If you can keep that flicker going, then you’ve got something going on there. It’s a wonderful thing.”

by Dan MacLennan
Reprinted with permission by Courier-Islander, with additions by Ken Ramstead