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author: Denise Rudnicki photos: Johnny C.Y. Lam

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Building a better world through the power of community

SUFFERING. It’s universal and, as human beings, we have an enormous capacity for compassion when faced with it. We feel sorrow when we see hungry children, refugees fleeing war, people sleeping on the streets. We worry about the shifting political landscape around the world and what it will mean for the vulnerable, the weak and the marginalized. We speak with real concern about righting wrongs, social justice and equality, and we exhort our children to work hard to make the world a better place. We are good at saying the right things, but we often stop short of taking action. Yet imagine what might happen if we did.

That’s what Green Wood Coalition asks us to consider, especially at its April event Imaginate – an inspiring evening of performances by musicians, poets, dancers and storytellers, each of whom has a deep understanding of social justice. They ask us to care enough to take personal action, no matter how small.

Several years ago, when I worked at the Vancouver Foundation, I discovered that caring enough to act is built on how connected we feel to our friends, families and neighbours. Those connections then lead to a strong sense of belonging in one’s community, and people with a deep sense of belonging are more likely to work at making their community a better place for everyone.

The people at Green Wood understand those foundations. The “radically inclusive” grassroots organization in Port Hope imagines a world where helping the hungry, homeless and hurting is a community concern, and it acts on that core philosophy with concrete programs: community dinners, art classes, help navigating our complex social services and medical system.

Headquartered in a storefront space on Ontario Street, the Coalition invites the curious to walk in. Art hangs in the windows, on the exposed brick walls and even on the ceiling. A First Nations drum dominates one corner, and large tables loaded with books and art supplies occupy the middle of the room. There is also a rack full of winter coats for anyone who needs one, and the smell of coffee beckons.

This is where I meet David Sheffield, Green Wood’s Director. In his flannel shirt and trademark paisley bandana, David has a gentle presence that inspires trust. This shines through as he leads the weekly art group, beginning by reading “I Shall Return,” by Claude McKay. It’s a poignant poem about longing for home, and it ends with, “I shall return, I shall return again/To ease my mind of long, long years of pain.” David asks the seven people around the table how the poem makes them feel, and this sparks a thoughtful discussion about alienation, disconnection from others and the meaning of home. I am struck by how openly people speak about their feelings; it is clearly a safe place where everyone is encouraged and supported.

Today’s art project involves speed-painting in an abstract style on 8” x 10” canvasses with brushes, palette knives and fingers. As people paint, I ask them why they come to the art group. One woman in a long grey skirt who is using her hands to spread thick blobs of paint, answers quickly: “It’s community, that’s why I come.” The others are intent on their art but nod and murmur in agreement.

I think about this craving for connection when I sit down to chat with Sayed Sharifi, a regular at the art group. Sayed is 45, a quiet and modest man who seems nervous to meet and ill at ease talking about himself. Born in Afghanistan, he was eight when the Russians invaded. They burned down his school, and Sayed saw friends killed by bombs. He and his older brother escaped by walking for a month through the mountains to Pakistan. Years later, they came to Toronto and started an import-export business, but Sayed was never able to put his early trauma behind him and he suffered ongoing anxiety and depression. When the 2008 recession hit, he lost his business and house and slid into despair. He moved to Port Hope partly because he could afford a place to live with his wife and three children, and partly because he liked the name Hope. But he was suffering and unable to work, becoming increasingly isolated and depressed. “It was really bad at first,” he says. “Then I met someone who said ‘Let’s go to Green Wood.’ These people make me feel welcome, like I have a family here.”

Green Wood gives Sayed that critical sense of belonging from which so many good things spring. There is a large body of research, including that by American political scientist Robert Putnam, that shows when we feel connected – when we trust one another and have a sense of belonging – people bounce back faster after illness or other setbacks, and they are mentally and emotionally healthier, with less depression and suicide. We are simply better off in many ways that matter.

“People don’t want to be alone,” says David, adding, “We all have different poverties.” He expands on this thought, saying we all suffer at times throughout our lives, whether from illness, job loss, the death of a loved one or a business or personal failure. When we suffer, we rely on our families and friends to help us through, but who do you lean on if you are homeless, hungry and hurting? Green Wood helps people by creating family for its members, and it also builds relationships through food.

The Coalition hosts a community dinner every Wednesday in the St. John’s Anglican Church Hall in Port Hope, where free meals are provided by a roster of church groups, service clubs and Green Wood members. The first thing David said when I told him I was writing this was, “Why don’t you come to one of our dinners and eat with us.” He said the same thing to two women who dropped into the storefront on Ontario Street while I was there, asking how they could get involved in Green Wood’s work. “These dinners are where we build relationships between people who are well-off and those who face daily struggles with poverty and homelessness,” he says. It would be easy to think that none of this exists in Port Hope because it is largely invisible, but the community dinners are proof there is need.

In a small pamphlet about the organization, David expresses the profound nature of eating together: “At the shared table we learn that we are all the same, with hopes and dreams, with good days and bad days. We learn that there is no us and them, and we learn that we all need each other…eating together can be a catalyst for positive change.”

It’s a cold winter evening in January when I go to the dinner. About 80 people are in the church hall. They are shaking off coats, shedding scarves, blowing on their cold hands, milling about, saying hello, catching up on one another’s news. David introduces me to Kim Noseworthy, who invites me to sit with her. Kim has been coming to the dinners since they began in 2006. She is 59 with shoulder-length grey hair, wrists loaded with beaded bracelets and a cheerful demeanour, despite the fact that she has multiple sclerosis and has been in a wheelchair for 20 years. Kim is excited to share the news that she’s getting married later this year – for the third time! A cook at Trinity College School in Port Hope for 10 years, she speaks with an insider’s knowledge about the quality of tonight’s buffet – a groaning board of roast beef, fried chicken, ham, sausages and chili, scalloped potatoes, salads and vegetables. Kim points to people as we chat. There’s Rick, who comes here because his wife has died, he’s alone now and he needs to get out and be with people. There’s Mary Lou, who offers to help Kim get to her doctor’s appointment later this week. Over there is Cheryl, waving hello and then sitting with her group of friends.

In the same way that Sayed is connected to others through the art group, Kim is connected to a community through these dinners. What’s unique about the dinners is that everyone in the community is invited to come and sit shoulder-to-shoulder, talk, share their stories, get to know each other and, of course, eat.

Rob Quartly and Nell Frair have been regulars at the dinners for five years, since they moved to the area from Toronto after retiring from successful careers in film and advertising. Rob favours black clothing and, with his white hair and blue eyes, looks every inch the creative film producer. His wife, Nell, exudes boundless energy and enthusiasm for Green Wood. They go to the dinners every week, sometimes offering rides, and always sitting and eating with members of the community. Nell organizes who brings the food, but for both of them it’s much more than simply providing a good meal for people who need it.

“Something happens when you sit down and eat with people,” says Rob. “There’s a social trigger when you break bread. These dinners are a great equalizer. You begin to see people differently after you’ve eaten with them, heard their stories and laughed with them. They have a name, you know them, you care about them and what happens to them.”

As a film producer, Rob is keen on telling people’s stories and has made several short films about some of the people he has come to know, films that are on the Green Wood site. Exuberant Victoria tells her story of hope and friendship after years of alcoholism and drug addiction. Bill and Ginette share their gentle love story of overcoming addiction together. Nicole tells how one small act of kindness led to her recovery. “Everyone has a story,” says Rob. “Once you hear it, you cannot help but care.”

The couple helps in the ways they can. Nell organizes the dinners, sits on the Green Wood board, does fundraising and, with Rob, is helping mount Imaginate. The April 13 event at The Capitol Theatre in Port Hope is designed to ignite people’s imaginations through stories, song and music. The line-up includes dub poet d’bi young anitafrika, poverty advocate Mike Creek, bluegrass harmonicaplayer Mike Stevens, singer Christa Couture, burger meister George Kallonakis, the St. Mary’s Singers, the Inuit group Sunsdrum and multi-talented host, David Newland. Green Wood hopes people will leave the event inspired, minds firing with possibilities of what they can do personally to get involved and build community.

“EVERYONE HAS THE RIGHT TO BELONG to a community. Everyone has a story. We can all do something.” Green Wood’s mottos ricochet through my mind as I watch the Wednesday dinner wind down, the leftovers packed into empty ice cream and yogurt containers to be taken home for another meal. David calls our attention to the front of the room. It’s the first dinner of the month, so there are birthdays to acknowledge. Five honourees line up in a row, laughing and teasing one another. They are presented with homemade chocolate cupcakes, each with one lit candle. Everyone sings “Happy Birthday” and then Kim takes off one of her many beaded bracelets and slips it onto my wrist. “This is for you,” she says. Mary Lou tells me to come back any time: “You’re always welcome.” Kim looks at me with a big smile and says, “See? We’re a family.”

Walking home, I think about Kim, Mary Lou, Sayed, Nicole, Darcy, Victoria, Graham, Les and all the other people I would not have met but for Green Wood. They are members of my community, and if I am to take the Coalition’s philosophy to heart, I must believe that if one of them suffers, we are all affected. Green Wood wants us to imagine a world in which people believe the poverty of one diminishes us all. It wants us to move beyond saying the right things to doing something, anything. As I enter my warm, safe house, I ponder what my own action will be.


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