Walks create connections
Volunteers take important steps to build Main Street community relationships
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It’s just before 10 a.m. on a chilly Thursday. The sky is overcast, and there’s a hint of winter in the air. A group of about 25 people have gathered at the Comm.Unity.204 building for the twice-weekly Main Street Community Walk. On this day, I am one of those volunteers.
Inside, the building almost looks like a thrift store. There is a table piled high with donated clothing and a shoe rack beside it. Along a wall is another table with bins of donated items such as hygiene products, masks and underwear.
Volunteers have loaded up wagons with food and warm clothes to hand out to people in the community. They’ve got packages of sandwiches, samosas, potato salad, butter chicken and rice. They have apples, cheese strings, fresh produce and other food offerings — all donated by Manitoba Harvest.
“Some days — not today, so much, but some days — when we go out, you’ll see dozens and dozens and dozens of individual soups and bannocks and treats that are made by grannies in the community,” Mitch Bourbonniere, a community activist who started the walk, says.
“That’s their contribution. They may be older and can’t walk, or they’re not mobile, so this is their thing — to provide home-cooked, traditional soup and bannock.”
Before the walk starts, each person introduces themselves, though I think most of them (perhaps all of them, except for me) are regulars. Some have come on their own, and several are there as part of another organization. The group as a whole is a family. They call one another brother and sister and speak of the people who they’ll venture out to share food and warm clothes with as their relatives.
A smudge is lit and brought around to everyone in the room. The smell of sage wafts through the building as each person takes their turn to smudge themselves from the smouldering medicine.
After everyone is done, it is time to go outside.
Filing out of the building, volunteers grab hold of buckets and garbage pickers, and the wagons of food and warm clothing. Somebody grabs a sharps container. There are already people waiting. Almost as soon as the door opens, a small but swelling crowd surrounds the wagon of food, taking only what they need.
There is food, fellowship and a real sense of connection for everyone taking part.
There is no judgment, no shame. The interactions are friendly and familiar. It’s almost like a twice-weekly family reunion of relatives helping one another. Someone getting food overhears a volunteer mention she hadn’t brought a jacket and was cold. The woman offers to run home and grab a jacket for her.
“I have lots,” she says. “I’ll be right back.”
This is the way it goes. The relationships that are built are reciprocal, and most of the people who the Main Street Community Walk volunteers set out to help don’t only take — they want to give back when they can.
“These are folks that live on or near Main Street. Some of them struggle with mental health and addiction and life trauma. Some of them are residential school survivors, and lots of them have been impacted by residential school,” Bourbonniere says as we slowly walk through the crowds of people.
“Our only mission is to spread love — so, a sandwich, a coat, a hug, looking someone in the eye, knowing their name, making relationship with them, that’s what we want to do.”
There are several interactions throughout the walk. They are a slow-moving group of people in little clusters interacting and engaging with one another.
“Look at all of these beautiful people,” Bourbonniere says.
On the left of me is a person who received a bag of marshmallows and is happily offering to share their treats with anyone passing by. They stand on the sidewalk, holding up the bag and asking, “Who wants a marshmallow?” A few feet away, a woman is crying. I only look in her direction for a few seconds, diverting my gaze because the moment seems raw and very personal. In those few seconds, I see a group of women consoling and hugging her. Elsewhere on the sidewalk, there is a conflict between two community members, though Mitch and some of the other volunteers act quickly, and without any sort of large reaction, to defuse the situation.
Through all of this, we continue down the street.
The walk isn’t terribly long. The group ventures from their place at 605 Main St. and finishes in the parking lot of a law firm across the street from the Comm.Unity.204 building.
They clean up the lot and usually snap a group photo. The law firm, Olschewski Davie Barristers and Solicitors, helps the group by paying a portion of the rent for the Comm.Unity.204 building each month.
“We started (this walk) at the beginning of the pandemic, and we’re never going to quit,” Bourbonniere says, adding the group didn’t even have a building at first. “We haven’t missed a Tuesday or Thursday in three years.”
Volunteers are welcome to join, and donations of seasonally appropriate clothes, snacks, water and travel-sized personal hygiene products are welcome. For more information, call Bourbonniere at 204-795-1741.
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project
Shelley is a born and raised Winnipegger. She is a proud member of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.