Rebecca Ferguson, left, and Eileen Wong are among The Good Shepherd employees doing what is necessary to help feed the homeless and needy in downtown Toronto. Photo by Michael Swan

Good Shepherd pivot allows it to continue feeding the poor during pandemic restrictions

  • April 15, 2021

Two sandwiches, a fruit bar, three granola bars, one chocolate bar, maybe a muffin or some other baked treat and a fruit cup all in a brown, paper bag — times 200,000.

Sometime during the week of April 11 a homeless person just east of downtown Toronto will have received the 200,000th COVID-era bagged lunch from The Good Shepherd, just across Queen Street from St. Paul’s Basilica. The bagged lunch is actually the minor attraction — an extra that comes with a hot take-away meal handed out at the side door of the shelter run by the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God.

Add in the meals prepared for people still resident in the shelter and The Good Shepherd has already served well over 250,000 meals under COVID restrictions. But the massive bag lunch operation — 2,000 to 4,000 lunches packed per week — has been one of the most dramatic adjustments of any organization on the front lines of the pandemic.

“We’ve gone from serving up to 1,500 meals every day here (in The Good Shepherd’s dining room). And then when COVID came and we couldn’t do that anymore, we said, ‘What will we do? We can’t just not look after
people,’ ” explained Ursuline Sister Joan Stafford of The Good Shepherd’s pastoral care team. “So we started making sandwiches, about 600 in the mornings.”

It grew from there. These days, the lunches The Good Shepherd can’t distribute directly out the side door go to other agencies serving the homeless. The massive effort has gone ahead despite the fact COVID protocols have banished volunteers from the building.

“We weren’t sure what we were going to be able to do,” recalls communications director Adrienne Urquahart. “We used to rely on 8,000 volunteers a year. That’s pretty much gone.”

Rebecca Ferguson used to recruit those volunteers, give them job descriptions and show them around the place as The Good Shepherd’s volunteer co-ordinator. Now she makes sandwiches, packs bags, helps distribute them and does whatever else is necessary. She’s joined by Eileen Wong, the executive assistant to Good Shepherd director Br. David Lynch, pastoral care manager Christine Slater and retired chaplain Fr. Ed Keays among others. The whole group is happy to be doing something positive, concrete, useful for the people who rely on The Good Shepherd.

“They appreciate that we haven’t shut the door,” said Stafford. “This is a homing place for them. If they come, then we’ll look after them.”

Under the pressures of COVID, Good Shepherd staff have come to appreciate each other more, said Urquahart.

“It’s weird because when you were working (pre-COVID) you were constantly just focusing on your job. Now people have been redeployed and it’s all hands on deck — even more so now,” she said. “It’s building a closeness because we’re relying on each other and we’re relying on each other to keep everyone safe.”

Volunteers who used to serve meals or make beds inside the shelter haven’t completely disappeared, even if they’re not in the building. Over 50 women who call themselves “The Sandwich Sisters” deliver hundreds of sandwiches to the back door of The Good Shepherd every morning. Others turn up on Sunday mornings with bottled water, loads of fruit or candy — whatever they can scrounge up that might be useful.

Corporate donations help, including food from Costco and various grocery stores. Some of the donations are themselves signs of the pain of the pandemic.

“Yesterday we had somebody whose restaurant is not opening again, so they donated the food to us,” said Urquahart.

Nobody at The Good Shepherd is spending a lot of time thinking about what happens when everybody is vaccinated and the pandemic is over, Urquahart said.

“We don’t know when that is. We’re just in the third wave, aren’t we?” she said. “This is maybe something we’re going to have to deal with in waves through the future.”

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