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Charities, groups adapt Easter programs for those in need amid COVID-19

Last Updated Apr 13, 2020 at 4:14 am EDT

TORONTO — For almost a decade, the Easter long weekend has brought almost 500 Haligonians in need to the Souls Harbour Rescue Mission, where they tuck into a free, three-course meal surrounded by other diners and volunteers.

They still got to enjoy their hot ham, mashed potatoes and many of the other fixings this year, but one thing was off the menu: company.

“It’s a really nice sight, but obviously we are not doing it this year,” said Michelle Porter, the chief executive of the charitable organization, which cancelled its annual Easter gathering and instead has offered takeout holiday meals.

Souls Harbour Rescue Mission is not alone. Many organizations serving people most in need had to call off or adjust their typical Easter plans to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and abide by demands from politicians and public authorities to limit gatherings.

People recognize the need to be safe in these uncertain times, but for the community, the meal’s shift was a “disappointment,” said Porter.

“It’s even more important that we’re able to serve a meal because we’re the only place serving lunch (to them) right now,” she said.

“We got a few requests or Facebook messages from people who wouldn’t normally come to Souls Harbour for a meal, but are looking for something special for Easter because they haven’t been able to either go shop or are not able to afford a ham or turkey this year.”

Keith Hambly, the chief executive at Fred Victor, a Toronto organization that operates shelters and affordable and transitional housing, was also seeing that need first-hand.

His charity’s Friends Restaurant, a Queen Street East spot offering weekday brunch or dinner for free or at a low cost, is a hit around the holidays.

Like Souls Harbour, it had to switch up its usual traditions.

“Since the COVID-19 declaration of emergency a few weeks ago, we’ve had to do takeout meals as opposed to congregate dining,” said Hambly.

“We actually had staff and management deliver the meals on Good Friday and again … on Easter Monday.”

Hambly was looking forward to his Easter Monday shift delivering some of the roughly 300 prepared meals put together by Fred Victor. Turkey, he thought, had been on the menu for Good Friday, but Easter Monday would likely see ham distributed.

Over at Salvation Army, “it’s a very different Easter,” said spokesperson John Murray.

The charity with branches throughout Canada helps over a million people through housing, food, disaster aid, and camps and church services, but the organization has had to make adjustments quickly during the crisis.

Its Easter church service was hosted online this year and its community feeding programs, where members of the public in need could visit some Salvation Army sites for food or a meal, are being adjusted.

“We’ve taken those feeding programs out into the community and we’re delivering them through our emergency disaster vehicles,” Murray said, rattling off a list of locations being targeted by the service, including Hamilton and London, Ont.

Over in Halifax, he said the Salvation Army is focusing much of its energy on feeding people in a series of pop-up shelters erected to combat COVID-19.

The work the Salvation Army is doing this year has particular importance, said Murray, because of COVID-19.

The federal government has committed $100 million for organizations that help get food to Canadians who can’t afford groceries or who have uncertain access to food and other basic necessities, including Indigenous Peoples and remote northern populations.

That funding is being allocated to groups like Food Banks Canada, the Salvation Army, Second Harvest, Community Food Centres Canada, and Breakfast Club of Canada, who have been calling for donations and support because of an uptick in demand for their services.

“We’re seeing people who have never come to the Salvation Army before who never thought for a minute they would need the services of a not-for-profit organization, all of a sudden going, ‘Wow, I don’t have a job. I’ve got mortgage payments I’ve got car payments. I’ve got to pay the heating bill, and I need more food,'” Murray said. 

“The pandemic is just an extraordinary situation for us.”

This story by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2020.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

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