It’s a busy Saturday morning at the Welcome In Drop In Centre on Gordon Street.
People line up for a decent meal as a sign on the wall lets them know that meal cost “75 cents or whatever you can pay,” adding that no one will be refused.
A man with a fresh black eye enjoys a cupcake at one table while another sleeps at his. A woman lets it be known loudly that she doesn’t want her picture taken.
In the corner stands Don Sawchuk, a Guelph-based singer/songwriter who for the past month has been coming in every Wednesday and Saturday with his guitar and sing his songs.
“I kind of was in that spot and met all kinds of great people that were struggling just like I was,” says Sawchuk, 51, of what brings him to such an unlikely venue.
“I know what it’s like. I thought that maybe this would reach some people and maybe lift them up and give them some courage and hope.”
Many years ago Sawchuk would eat once a day in a Thunder Bay soup kitchen, saving what money he could for his wife and young child living back home in Kitchener.
He met lots of people in that soup kitchen, he understands that the struggles they face do not make them any less of a person.
Sawchuk, whose second full-length album Underdog comes out next month, admits he both gives and gets by spending time playing his music in the room.
“People come here for a meal, but I get fed too. It’s just not food,” says the father of three.
Sawchuk is here by choice. He has a good job with a local firm that makes animal pharmaceuticals and is talented enough musically that he could play in much more traditional locales.
“I sit at a desk job and shuffle papers all day. It’s just not the same as connecting with people,” he says.
It has taken a while, but people at the Drop In Centre are starting to warm up to him, and trust him. Some have thanked him. Some have told him that the words in a song struck a chord with them.
“There was certainly a feeling-out period,” he says. “But I meet new people all the time. It’s more of a one-on-one type of relationship building here.
“They’re in their own struggle and this is just something that maybe lifts them up a little bit. They appreciate that.”
Sawchuk wants to be here because he knows how much it means to this particular audience.
“Thematically the album is about people who have been disenfranchised and faced struggles and challenges,” he says.
“I thought ‘I could go out and play this album in the bars and in the clubs and all that stuff,’ but people want to hear cover songs while they drink their beer. I was looking for somewhere I could play this music where there would be a listening ear, someone I could connect with the messages of the song.”
A Windsor native, Sawchuk’s musical eyes were opened by his older sister Judith, who encouraged him and introduced him to all kinds of music.
He started playing guitar at the age of 12. Performed classic rock covers in a church basement in high school. Started busking while taking a teaching degree a few years later.
His sister was murdered in 1985 when she was 25, eight years older than her brother.
“I still listen to some of the records she gave me,” Sawchuk says.
“She really like music and she saw that I had a passion for creating music and she wanted me to pursue that and encouraged me to do it,” Sawchuk says.
Underdog is dedicated to his sister.
The loss of his sister, hardships he has faced in life, and overcoming those things are all thematic in his songs, as the titles on Underdog would attest: Mercy, Drowning in Tears, Where Are You Now, No Place To Go and Love Is are just some of the titles found on the album, which is a hybrid of 70s classic rock, adult contemporary, blues, ballads and gospel.
Music publisher Steve Thomson of Backstage Productions International has been in the music business a long time.
He was struck when a mutual acquaintance forwarded him some of Sawchuk’s music.
“He’s a true songwriter. He’s got great performance skills and he’s got heart,” Thomson says.
“He wants to give back. That’s really what’s it’s all about.”
The title track of Underdog can be heard here.