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Making do at the Salvation Army

There's an aroma of shepherd's pie wafting from the Salvation Army kitchen as I enter the old building for my shift one morning last month. I chop veggies here.

There's an aroma of shepherd's pie wafting from the Salvation Army kitchen as I enter the old building for my shift one morning last month. I chop veggies here.

Men and women in layers of clothing are already huddled at the plastic dining room tables, trying to warm up with a coffee in their hands. A few look up and say hello - if they have the energy. Others just blink.

I hurriedly hang up my coat in the overflowing closet that’s in a corridor between the kitchen and prep cook area. It only takes one person standing there to block the entire flow of traffic between the two work areas.

Luke Caithcart, the gentle cook, smiles and says good morning over the blare of the radio pop tunes. He’s a tall, slim, bashful man who doesn’t give orders - he simply asks us if we’d like to do a certain task, as if it’s a favour to him. It makes me want to do more.

There’s a new volunteer today, maybe doing community service as part of her probation. A stronger kitchen helper is hauling potatoes up the staircase from one of the basement fridges. We constantly go up and down those stairs to get produce or to use the extra oven to bake for more than 100 people per lunch.

Salvation Army Captain Shannon Howard assures me that a solution to this inefficient layout is in the works.

“Our dream is to have a new building,” she said. The Sally Ann has partnered with the Yukon government to study the creation of a new building. “It would have a new kitchen and flex rooms to offer life skills programs, so that we’re more than a Band-Aid solution,” she said. “It would even have transitional housing.”

That dream is a few years away, so right now I ask my co-worker to step out of the work area so I can squeeze past him to my corner where I chop celery and carrots. My back is cold because there’s a draft from a hole above the air conditioner in the wall. The darned thing didn’t keep me cool in the sweltering heat of summer and I’m mad at myself for not stuffing insulation around it before the north winds blew in.

Trader Time is on the radio now. The guys crank up the volume, as always. It’s affordable shopping. I hungrily eye trays of lime pies. Someone must have given us a box of limes.

“Half of our food is donated,” Howard says. “We estimate $6,800 per month in donated food and we spend another $6,250. So our cook can’t plan in advance because we never know what’s coming in. He really has to keep on his toes every day and is fantastic at stretching the dollar. We even accept wild meat from the public if it is done by a butcher. We must pick it up directly from the butcher, by law.”

That explains the bison sausage we’ve been using lately on the pizzas. I wash lettuce for caesar salad and am thrilled to see a new industrial-size salad spinner. I can barely wrap my arms around this big bucket and I only have to fill it twice to spin the lettuce dry. Like everything else here, the old spinner was just a household utensil. I used to fill and spin a dozen times or more to do the job.

“We do the most we can with the little we have,” says Howard. “We are very good at taking whatever we’ve got and making it work. You know, we serve 4,500 meals a month.”

As we’re dicing, slicing, stirring and hauling food, I hear someone in the cafeteria yell for Caithcart. He’s deeply loved here. This cook is more of a listener than a talker, and I’ve never seen him angry despite frequent chaos. Now a client wants to speak only to Caithcart. He sets down his whisk, goes into the dining area and stands patiently listening, as if he doesn’t have urgent tasks at the stove.

I think this lady was here overnight. Howard says this is home for many people. “As well as the kitchen we also have 14 beds and 16 mats. At night the tables in the dining room get moved and then we lay down mats for people to sleep. Some of our clients want to volunteer and we accept any help they offer. They will take it upon themselves to mop the place - it provides them dignity to know they can help out and it gives them some ownership of the shelter.”

As my shift nears the end, it’s time for me to cut the lime pies into serving sizes and put them in bowls. It’s a hunt to find what I need for this job because everything is stacked three deep on the shelves. I’m starved by now from the mileage I’ve covered just getting stuff so I toss a slice of pie into my mouth, then use bowls to serve the other kitchen helpers.

The radio is playing a hit tune from Blue Rodeo as I bundle up to leave and Caithcart thanks me for my help. The lyrics ring in my ears as I emerge onto the worn wooden Salvation Army porch where a few guys stand silently having a smoke, watching the 4th Avenue traffic roll by:

“Hey, hey, I guess it hasn’t hit me yet. / I fell through this crack and kinda lost my head. / I stand transfixed before the street light / Watching the snow fall on this cold December night.”