April 10, 2020

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Winnipeg outreach program Oak Table grows alongside community need

The wooden table used as a gathering place for people while they drank a mug of coffee is still inside the Osborne Village church, but the number of seats around it can’t hold the number of people it gathers now.

How to help Oak Table

You can mail a tax-deductible donation to Oak Table, 109 Pulford Ave., Winnipeg, MB, R3L 1X8, or go online to donate at www.canadahelps.org.

You can donate non-perishable food items, including canned ham, salmon and chicken, pasta, rice, and coffee. The organization also needs new underwear and socks, and personal hygiene items including toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, shampoo and soap. A tax receipt will be given when a sales receipt is presented.

If you want to volunteer, email Oak Table at otcmcc@shaw.ca.

Oak Table, which began as an outreach ministry of Augustine United Church in 1981, now helps between 75 to 170 people each day Monday to Thursday. It not only provides lunch, but also programming including creating art, allowing access to a computer for email, and offering new underwear or socks.

Joan Hibbert was working in the church when Oak Table became more than just a piece of furniture.

"It’s one thing to have a beautiful church, but if the door is closed, it’s just a building," she said of the original decision to allow access during the day on weekdays.

Oak Table executive director Glynis Quinn (left) and volunteer Joan Hibbert.</p></p>

Oak Table executive director Glynis Quinn (left) and volunteer Joan Hibbert.

"We opened the doors and, next thing I knew, I had people coming in off the street, many who were students. It went from a cup of coffee to 150 coming back. Sometimes we had cookies, but most of the time they just had coffee and sat at the table here... I knew they wanted more, but at least we could give a cup of coffee.

"And they told us about their problems."

It was from those humble beginnings Oak Table was born. It now takes up the rear hall of the church during the day, while 1JustCity, which offers a warm sleep space program during the winter, takes over overnight.

Eating a bowl of yogurt filled with pieces of fruit, 43-year-old Skinny Bird said he has been coming to Oak Table for about seven years.

"I feel great when I’m here," he said. "It is welcoming. There are nice people here and I can meet with friends. And I get to do art work."

Guests find security and comfort within the walls of the Augustine Church in Osborne Village.

Guests find security and comfort within the walls of the Augustine Church in Osborne Village.

With winter’s cold outside, he said he didn’t know where he would be for these few hours if Oak Table didn’t exist. "I like this place — there’s a lot of nice people here."

Another man, who said his name was Brian, said Oak Table "is the best soup kitchen I know."

"It is welcome," he said. "An old friend of mine told me about this place and said I should check it out. I’ve been coming two months now. You can even have a nap here."

Nearby, working on a piece of art, Michael said he has been coming "since June 27, 2006."

"Before I came in, I used to walk by to Safeway, but I was too scared to come in. It all worked out and it has been good in the long run. I like this place — it’s my family."

Skinny Bird is a frequent visitor at Oak Table.</p></p>

Skinny Bird is a frequent visitor at Oak Table.

Glynis Quinn, Oak Table executive director, said the program operates about 17 to 19 days each month.

"Last year, we served 22,509 meals," Quinn said. "This year, we surpassed that a couple of months ago. We’re expecting to serve 2,000 or more meals before the end of the year."

Quinn said the rising number of meals served points to a growing problem in the community.

"The number of people in poverty is not getting better, it is getting worse," she said. "And people come from far afield to come here."

Quinn said a "terrific group of volunteers" keeps the charity going.

Michael McCracken has been an Oak Table guest since 2006.

Michael McCracken has been an Oak Table guest since 2006.

"They come in early in the morning and they decide what will be made (for lunch). There are lots of soups and casseroles, French onion soup to lasagna to pasta to stew. It’s anything we can put together that is nutritious."

Quinn said a grant allows the group to bring in an artist from Art City to help people create paintings and other artworks. The supplies are free to the participants.

"It’s really wonderful for people with mental health issues. They can tap into their creative mind."

Quinn said two nurses and a social worker come a couple of times a month to provide health care to the people who are assisted by Oak Table, while volunteers help people apply for identification or get a library card.

Oak Table is a lean organization: it only has one full-time paid employee and two part-time staff, with the rest of the help provided by volunteers. The money to operate comes solely from donations and grants.

McCracken shows off some of his sketches.

McCracken shows off some of his sketches.

Quinn said the organization is waiting for City of Winnipeg permits to allow renovations to continue in the basement at the front of the church to create the new location for Oak Table. The space will feature an open-concept kitchen, private clinic rooms, art studio, laundry, lockers and shower facilities.

"We’ll have tables of four, so people can have real interaction with each other," she said. "And there will be tablecloths and cloth napkins which we can clean in the laundry. I remember one guy said: ‘I’ve never been anywhere with a cloth napkin.’

"We want people to feel this is someplace special for them."

Hibbert recalled one man coming into the church’s sanctuary, dressed in a suit. He began railing at God in a loud voice before laying down on the floor.

"Then he came to have coffee with us," she said. "His whole world had fallen apart. He told us that if he’d done this anywhere else in the world they would have taken him away, but this was the safest place."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

The  program was named after the original wooden table at Augustine United Church.

The program was named after the original wooden table at Augustine United Church.

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason
Reporter

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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