Sr. Gwen Smith leads Toronto's Mustard Seed Outreach Centre to provide basic and social needs to women throughout the year.

Mustard Seed spreads welcoming message for Thanksgiving

  • October 6, 2017

Sr. Gwen Smith is singing about shoo-fly pie and apple pan dowdy.

It’s Whimsical Women’s Wednesday at the Mustard Seed outreach centre. While Smith sings, women paint with waterco-lours and a volunteer kitchen staff prepares lunch: miniature quiches and apple pan dowdy for dessert.

“It’s nice to have a day just for women where they can express themselves and feel welcomed,” said Smith, 87, the ministry director at Mustard Seed since it opened in 2000.

Nestled in the heart of Toronto’s Riverdale neighbour-hood, Mustard Seed is part of the Fontbonne Ministries founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph Toronto. It offers social programs for local residents, everything from making pan dowdy to computer training to sewing to performing pantomime. It’s especially busy during Thanks-giving season. “We get a real mix of patrons here,” said Smith. “I used to work in Parkdale (in west Toronto) where we saw a lot of people with untreated mental illness. Here, we have more patrons who are medicated. We also have a lot of working poor and seniors with very limited pensions.”

The watercolour painters are a mix of the individuals Smith described. Some are regulars who greet Smith with the warmth and friendliness of a best friend. They move on from painting to a stretching activity before lunch.

“A lot of the people who come are very sedentary,” said Smith.

“We try to get them moving as much as possible.” Smith also likes to get the patrons outside when the weather permits, taking them on nature walks or painting in the sunshine.

“This is my favourite,” said Smith, referring to a large painting hanging on a wall in the basement. It is a life-sized tree, but its leaves are a kaleidoscope of handprints in all different colours.

“We took patrons to Allan Gardens to do this. You can tell we had artists of all ages, some of the handprints are bigger than mine and some belong to children. It’s a mosaic of everyone who comes here. They just loved having fun with paint outside on a beautiful day.”

Although Mustard Seed offers free meals to its patrons, its primary focus is providing social interactions and fulfillment beyond basic needs.

“Think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” said AnnMarie Marcolin, interim manager at Mustard Seed, referring to Abraham Maslow’s psychological theory of human ful-fillment. “On a basic level, humans need food, water and shelter to survive. But our next level of needs are social. At Mustard Seed, everyone is accepted. We listen to what our patrons have to say and we celebrate their gifts.”

Smith knows that the holidays can be difficult for the poor and isolated, so she goes to great efforts to ensure the centre is festive and cheerful. The walls of the sun-lit rooms are lined with artwork and crafts created by participants. The lunch room smells of freshly brewed coffee. The glass windows offer participants a view of the changing leaves as they dine.

The food served at Mustard Seed is economically sourced. The kitchen is stocked with surplus supplies from food banks and from the sisters’ own reserves. They also receive fresh fruit in the summer through Not Far From the Tree, a volunteer organization that picks fruit from trees and bushes across Toronto.

“The Wednesday following Thanksgiving will be a themed Whimsical Women’s Wednesday,” said Marcolin. “Even though it doesn’t fall on the actual day, we will serve a Thanksgiving lunch. We also do a community kitchen every Tuesday night so next week’s theme will also be around the concept of Thanksgiving.

“It includes access to a meal but it is really about a larger conversation around what we need to be thankful for. It’s so easy to be forgetful of that unless someone actually encourages one, individually and as a collective group, to take the time to articulate their gratitude.” Smith says fulfilling secondary needs — socialization and emotional purpose — are necessary to ensuring participants a good quality of life.

“I always start every activity by asking everyone, ‘How do we come today?’ ” said Smith. “It’s important to know how everyone is feeling so I can respond to them in the best way possible.”

Mustard Seed also helps its patrons by finding practical solutions to real problems. “Just the other day we had a woman come in who had been living in a shelter with her children. She was having some issues with her current living situation so I helped her draft an advocacy letter to the shelter,” said Marcolin.

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