Deacon Thomas Aquino and other volunteers at the Good Shepherd are staying engaged as best they can in a time of COVID where volunteers are being asked to stay at home. Michael Swan

The Good Shepherd’s volunteers stay engaged

By 
  • November 29, 2020

As Toronto and Peel Region officially went into lockdown on Nov. 23, they joined Good Shepherd volunteers who have already been in lockdown for 10 months.

To protect the volunteers themselves, and to keep the Good Shepherd’s employees and clients as safe as possible, Good Shepherd executive director Br. David Lynch has had to tell the thriving community of volunteers to stay home.

“We miss them terribly. We really do miss them,” Lynch said. “But it’s not safe to have them here at the moment. Until it’s safe, I won’t let anybody in.”

The Queen Street East shelter, open kitchen, social centre and program centre for the homeless went through its own lockdown in the 14 days leading up to Nov. 19 as it cleared an outbreak of coronavirus. The outbreak meant no new admissions and rules to keep the 25 residents on the second floor separate from 25 residents on the third floor, while those who tested positive were sent to the City of Toronto’s isolation units in hotels for a 14-day quarantine period. The 47 Good Shepherd clients living in City of Toronto-financed hotel rooms because of  COVID-19 were unaffected.

“We can’t close,” said Lynch.

While volunteers aren’t there helping prepare and serve food, sorting cans in the basement food bank, running the clothing bank or making beds, they are still engaged.

Deacon Thomas Aquino used to bring in two crews of volunteers on separate Sundays every month. One crew made beds, the other helped out in the kitchen. Not being able to go in is a real loss, Aquino told The Catholic Register.

“It’s a big change, not only for myself but I guess for everyone,” he said.

Aquino has been able to keep up his parish sock drives every couple of months, just as he has been doing for the last decade. But the volunteer group as a whole has shifted its focus to raising money and collecting the ingredients for take-away meals — protein bars, bottled water, snacks. At least twice a month Aquino or one of the volunteer group leaders makes a delivery to the back door of the Good Shepherd.

The shelter is distributing 1,000 take-away meals a day.

“The guys come right up to 10, 11 o’clock, 1 o’clock at night — some of the guys from the encampments near here — and ask for some food,” said Lynch. “We give them sandwiches and a drink and high protein bars, stuff like that.”

At the regular afternoon meal times, the Good Shepherd hands out hot meals supplemented with sandwiches and snacks so that with a single pickup the homeless or near-homeless might have two meals to get them through the day.

“Nothing is wasted here. The poor get it,” Lynch said.

Other volunteer efforts through the lockdown have included homemade muffins (“They were amazing and very, very popular,” said Lynch), individually wrapped cookies, a knitting club that delivers scarves, toques and gloves, and several groups that make sandwiches at home, wrap them and deliver them to the back door of 412 Queen St. E.

A retired public health nurse who used to come into the Good Shepherd to administer flu vaccines recently dropped off a carload of men’s clothing.

“We’re running short of toques and scarves and gloves and other winter wear now that the weather is turning colder,” Lynch said.

The volunteers Aquino has organized over the years at Prince of Peace Parish in Scarborough aren’t the people with prominent roles in the church, the deacon said.

“They’re like the silent group,” said Aquino. “They’re not well recognized at the parish. But they just go in every first or second Sunday (of the month) to do whatever they have to do at the Good Shepherd.”

Neither are they complaining that somebody took away their volunteer roles.

“We have to realize, these are the times. We have to look after our health. Some of the older volunteers realize this,” Aquino said. “We just have to adapt to the current situation.”

For his part, Lynch is grateful for all that the volunteers continue to do, but can’t wait to have them back, live and in person.

“It’s gone from a chaotically busy building that still had a heart of peace to a quieter place,” he said. “Everything is up in the air, because we live from day to day, figuring out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to respond.”

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