For Sharon Craig, almost every day is like Christmas. While many folks prepare a big annual feast for dozens of family members, Craig has been cooking a diverse and nutritious lunch for about 150 hungry diners Monday through Friday for the past eight years. It’s a job she loves, and the gift she receives on a daily basis is the company of the people who walk through the door of the Helping Hands Soup Kitchen.
What’s your background? Were you a cook other places did you have your own restaurant or anything?
I didn’t work since the day I got married until I moved from Kenora to Brandon, and my oldest daughter was going off to university and my youngest was in Grade 12. They got summer jobs at Bonanza Restaurant for Bob and Bea Allen, who are great and fantastic employers.
So my kids went to a meeting at Bonanza and they came home and said, ‘Mom, they need somebody to make salads — why don’t you go down there?’ And so I did. And I ended up being a manager and was there for 12 years.
And then the Allens bought the Crystal Hotel and they needed somebody to get it up and running. So I was down there for 13 months and that’s the time that I cooked. Short-order cooking — I’d never done that. Trust me — it was a challenge!
So then I retired from that and I went on home. And the cook was gone from Helping Hands, and a board member came to my door one night and said, ‘Would you come down and cook interim at the soup kitchen because they don’t have anybody?’ And I said, ‘No — I’ll take the job! I don’t like this retirement!’ And that was eight years ago.
My gosh! And you’re open Monday to Friday? And you serve from …?
From 12 to one. I get here at about quarter to six in the morning and I leave at about quarter to two. So I get eight hours, and the hours are perfect — I spend a half-a-day here, and I’ve still got a half-a-day left, and it’s great! It’s the best thing I ever did.
What do you like about it? The independence?
There’s no food cost, there’s no labour per cent, there’s no early morning meetings, there’s none of that whole manager thing where you’ve got sometimes a 12-hour shift. I just focus on the food. And getting the food in, if I can, from people. I beg and borrow. I keep saying if somebody could give us a million dollars then we wouldn’t have to beg anymore. I hate begging. I’m so tired of begging for food.
I understand that you folks got all the leftovers from the Westman and Area Traditional Christmas Dinner this year. So that would be a real boost, I’m sure.
Huge! It was huge! There was a fantastic amount. So these guys have been eating ham and turkey since Dec. 25.
I’m sure you have to get creative fairly often, because you don’t get to order food essentially you have to work with what ends up on your doorstep, right?
Yes. The job description said that they’d like to have a planning of a week’s meals, and I just said to them, ‘That’s not possible.’ Because I might be making one thing, and something comes in that has to be used right away. Last in, first out.
And it changes. I can be making something and all of a sudden I think, ‘Oh! If I got this product I could actually make this!’ And so you just shuffle things around. And it’s fun! And I guess that’s what I enjoy about it.
You say you have to beg for food, and that’s sad. Do people not drop things off as much as you’d like? I mean, people think more often of helping others in December, but at this time of year, donations probably drop off again. Or is that a wrong supposition?
No, that’s probably right. But sometimes people think, ‘I’ve got this much roast beef what’s that going to do for them? Seriously, that’s probably going to feed five people what’s the sense of bringing that in?’ But if ten people did that…
So there’s really nothing that’s too small, then?
Nothing’s too small. NOTHING’S too small. And then sometimes when people pass away, folks will go and clean out their homes and they’ll phone and say, ‘I’m not sure.’ And I’ll say, ‘Pack it up and bring it to me. And I’ll go through it.’ What I can use, I use. And what I can’t, I can’t.
Are the hunters good to you? I know some people hunt for the enjoyment of the sport but they don’t really like to eat the meat.
That’s right. But it has to be certified before we can take it. And some hunters will actually go and get it inspected and then they’ll bring it to us.
You see, the Hutterites don’t have their meat inspected. And they’re probably cleaner than clean can be. But we can’t take their meat. Otherwise, we would NEVER have a problem with meat. Because they’re very, very generous.
That’s great! What sort of stuff do they bring in?
Soup. The colonies will phone and ask if we need anything. And I’ll say, ‘Yes — I need some soup.’ They will literally make the soup, put it in big pails and send it in frozen. So that’s a real treat. It takes a long time to make soup.
What can you use on a regular basis? And do you ever get really low on food?
I never run out of food. I just bow my head and pray for it, and honestly, it comes. It really does. I never worry about it. But we can always — ALWAYS — use more.
People in Brandon are very generous. They really are. And you know, it’s funny — a friend will bring a person in to help out and volunteer for a little while, and they say to them every time they come in, ‘Oh you won’t be able to not come back.’ And it’s true. They come back all the time. It’s a fun place.
What’s fun about it?
The people who come in and volunteer, some of them don’t really think they like to volunteer, but somebody’s nudged them and brought them in, and then they grow to love it. And we have a good time. We’re serious about what we do but we have a good time doing it. It’s just a feeling you have when you’re here working.
You say it’s a fun place to be, and I would have thought the opposite. I would have thought it would be depressing to see so many people in need. Or maybe it’s fun because you’re helping people?
That can work both ways, because sometimes you just get tears in your eyes. They enjoy coming here. And some people, it’s not because they don’t have the money to buy food. They just don’t have anybody, and they’re lonely. And others, you know, you can tell by how much they try to eat at one time, they’re not going to have another meal ‘til the next day.
I would presume there are some who come for lunch fairly regularly. Do you worry about them on weekends?
Yes. (brushing away tears). But we make meals and send them down to the Health Access Centre, and they can go there and get a meal. And now a church has made meals for them — Samaritan House has bought turkeys for the church and the church has made meals and sent them down to the Health Access Centre.
Do you ever think about giving this up? Or as long as you have your health, you’ll be there? It seems like you’re pretty committed to it.
That’s a good question, because I turn 67 this year. So the pots get heavier. But I’ll probably push another year. I like the idea of just associating with the people who are here. It’s kind of a strange association — you get to know them a little bit, and it’s not all about the food most of the time. It’s watching that they’ve got boots on in winter, or a coat. So you’ve got to look for that. And things that I can tell Samaritan House — ‘so-and-so doesn’t have any food at all, so-and-so doesn’t have any boots, they have no clothes.’ Or when people are missing you notice when somebody hasn’t come in for two or three days. So you feel like you’re volunteering your time in an area, although I’m getting paid, but there’s a lot of hours that don’t go in to just the cooking.
It sounds like this is pretty gratifying work.
It is. And it’s not about the money, because if it was, I wouldn’t be working for the wage that I am — it’s very minimal.
I don’t know how to explain it. You’d have to come here and get yourself in with those people, and you’d be hooked. You wouldn’t be able to go away from them.
I live two lives. This is my one life. And then I go home to my other life I walk in my house and it’s normal. It’s got everything you need, and food. And I swear to you every single night I get off my knees and I get into bed and I say, ‘Thank you, God, for this bed.’ So many people don’t even have a bed. They just don’t! (dissolving into tears) I’m sorry.
It’s OK! It would be completely pointless to have somebody in your position who was just into it because of the food. But really, Helping Hands is a joyful place?
Yes! Because they’re basically a happy people when they come in. And in summertime, I wear a lot of capris and I wear funny socks. I put on these knee-high socks that have swirls or big bunnies or all different kinds of colours, and they wait to see my socks. They do! And if I haven’t got them on, they say, ‘Where’s your socks?’ It’s funny! They become part of your family, I think. You really appreciate them when they come in.
Anyone wishing to donate food items to Helping Hands Soup Kitchen at 117 - 7th St. can do so between 9 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. Monday to Friday. For more information, call 204-727-4635.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 12, 2013