It all started with just two pots of soup.
Today, a community meal program in Guelph serves over 3,600 meals annually, for those in need.
Through a combined effort, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), the Guelph Wellington Coalition for Social Justice. and Wellington Catholic District School Board food and hospitality Courses coordinate and operate three meals a month at Royal City Mission.
“Last week, students from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic High School prepared over 100 meals that included lasagna, salad, drinks, and cookies for the meal program,” said past Wellington OECTA president and program committee chair, Mark Berardine.
“These classes were busy baking. Eight students participated alongside staff and teachers to serve the meal. “One student said, “we just fed 100 people.” I think that just sums it up.”
From September to June, students join teachers and staff to cook, serve and work in the kitchen for a 6 p.m. meal.
Berardine says the experience can often inspire students to volunteer throughout the year, either with OECTA on the second Tuesday of each month, or with the greater Social Justice and Labour community who join in on the fourth Tuesday of every month.
“We’ve even had students volunteer on their own time. Some do it for their volunteer hours, but there are some who do it over and above that,” Berardine said.
Since retiring from the Wellington Catholic District School Board, Berardine continues to teach a Grade 7 class every morning at St. John Catholic School.
Along with other OECTA members, Berardine has been active in the community for many years organizing food drives, meals and other events at the former 40 Baker Street and Drop In Centre as well as with other community organizations such as the Foodbank, The Bench and the Royal City Mission.
“It all started in 2014 with free soup downtown. I’ve been there from the very start. I made the soup,” Berardine said.
But COVID-19 put a quick stop to services at Royal City Mission.
“We were the last people to serve there in 2020. In March 2021, we began bringing in meals and catering at Royal City Mission and then we were slowly able to serve again.”
Soon after, the Guelph Wellington Coalition for Social Justice came on board to help.
“We also had two teachers run a virtual cooking class, and they decided to join us in June 2021. They hosted a meal. Although they could not serve yet because of the pandemic, they were able to drop food off,” Berardine said.
“So, we all met at St. James and St. John in the parking lot. The students all came down and dropped off food that they had prepared. They were so excited. It was the first time they were able to meet their teachers in person.”
Berardine says everyone involved was inspired to keep going.
"We asked the school board to continue. Since we had all of these cooking classes going on, why couldn't we have students help out every month? And we have been doing that for over a year now,” Berardine said.
Berardine says local Catholic elementary schools are also invited to take part.
“Elementary students also have opportunities to assist either in fundraising for special meals or by making desserts," Berardine said.
“St. John and Holy Trinity made pizza with me. St. Peter’s made desserts and they also held a fundraiser. They sponsored the main course with a ‘nickel and dime’ drive and made enough money for us to buy the main course. St John Bosco, our other secondary alternative school, makes desserts in conjunction with OECTA during some months as well."
Having served 3,600 meals last year, Berardine says, this year, numbers are only increasing.
"When we originally started, we would cook for 100 people knowing there would be leftovers. In 2021, we would get between 60 to 80 people," he said.
"Over the last six months, numbers have grown to as high as 139. So now, volunteers cook for 140. If you look at the numbers at Royal City Mission, their numbers have gone up from early last winter. At that time, they were serving 800 meals a month, and now they are serving almost 1200 meals weekly. So, that is quite a bit of an increase."
“It’s such a feeling of service. And for everyone who comes out to help, I think we get more out of it than the people that we are feeding. Everyone works together. Recently, one of the patrons said that after having such a terrible day, we helped it turn into a really good one,” Berardine said.
“You pick up the pebble, and you throw it in. The ripples started with just two pots of soup and now it’s grown into what it is today.”