Helping out at Helping Hands

For anyone without a home, winter time (especially the Christmas season) is a very difficult time. Obtaining many of the qualities of life we take for granted, like a warm meal, is next to impossible for many Brandonites. In Manitoba, the child poverty rate alone sits at an astounding 20.9%, with 5,000 more children living in poverty now than in 2005. As a result, charitable organizations like Brandon’s Helping Hands Centre act a vital part in the lives of many local Brandonites, both during the festive season and year-round.

Helping Hands Centre of Brandon is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing over one hundred and fifty local residents with a warm meal at noon five days a week. Located on 7th Street, the goal of Helping Hands is to establish a safe, relaxed environment for the “impoverished citizens of Westman by providing a nutritional meal, comfort and assistance” in an environment free of discrimination based on the likes of race, religion, gang affiliation or financial status. There are no restrictions on who is allowed to partake in the meal, as long as patrons are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Every meal consists of vegetables, a source of protein, carbohydrates, soup, bread, and salad, depending on resources, and each meal is planned to supply patrons with all the necessary daily nutritional value, given many will not have access to a second or third meal.

In charge of all of the operations within the soup kitchen is coordinator Vandana Jamadagni. Acting as a representative and contact to potential donators and volunteers, Jamadagni began her position in mid-July and admits, “This is like my second home.” Friendly and light-hearted, she enjoys organizing the only soup kitchen in the Westman area. “This is all I think about,” she says with a smile.

Well aware of her own dedication, Jamadagni confesses that Helping Hands wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of financial donors and volunteers. Brandon’s newest computer shop, Brandon Computers, gave the soup kitchen a new laptop, monitor, printer, computer and computer software last month. Various organizations across the Westman volunteer on a regular basis, including people from various Hutterite, Mennonite, and Mormon colonies; church groups; schools; departments within the City of Brandon, including the fire and police departments; and others working through the Employment and Income Assistance program offered through the provincial government. Dedicated head chef Sharon Craig is even relieved of her duties on the last Friday of every month when the First Presbyterian Church lends a hand. There are also a number of individual volunteers, like Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, who is donating her time this Christmas season, and Brandon University student Kelsey Labossiere. “Volunteering at the soup kitchen is not only a great way to give back to your community,” says Labossiere, “but it has also given me the feeling of purpose that can get lost when you are enrolled in school. The people are friendly, kind, and great to talk to and work with.”

Donations of food products are received from various organizations across the city. Businesses like Tim Hortons, Maple Leaf, Starbucks, and Subway donate meat, bread and milk, and Tim Hortons sends employees downtown to help out every Tuesday. In the summer, produce is received from local farmers and also grown in the community garden plots located on Victoria Street. During the winter months, however, fresh produce begins to run low, and the kitchen relies on frozen food and canned goods. “This time of the year, getting some fresh vegetables and soups are the difficult thing I would say, because we can’t simply afford to buy them on a regular basis for all the people every day,” Jamadagni explains.

The most major fundraiser for Helping Hands is the “Membership Drive.” Located at Brandon’s Canadian Tire on 18th Street, a booth is set up to receive monetary donations to aid in the maintenance of the premises and purchase necessary food. “A donation of just five dollars can give someone two meals,” Jamadagni said, a small gift that can mean the difference between a full or empty belly this holiday season.

Even though Helping Hands isn’t operational on Christmas Eve, Boxing Day or New Years’ Day, they still provide holiday cheer in every way they can. One week before Christmas, small gifts are purchased and administered to patrons.

While always managing to stay afloat, Helping Hands is always in need of volunteers. “If someone is interested in helping the organization, they can start as a volunteer, which is the easiest thing to do,” says Jamadagni. If volunteering sounds appealing, Jamadagni encourages people to talk to her, and figure out a schedule that works around the priorities and conveniences of the individual.

Remember to stop and be thankful for the Christmas dinner you take for granted—your grandmother’s stuffing, the dainties and cookies, the list goes on—because somewhere across Westman someone isn’t able to indulge in the same way. If you find yourself bored after exam week, head over to the Helping Hands Centre and give to other what you expect to be given this holiday season. Merry Christmas!

Republished from The Quill print edition, Volume 103, Issue 15, December 11, 2012.