Four years and two buildings later, the Grace Cafe is busier than ever – and things aren’t slowing down any time soon.
On Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, the soup kitchen reopened its doors after being closed for a week to move locations from Queen Street to its new spot on 323 Talbot Street. Owner Ginny Trepanier says it’s a miracle they made the move in a week, but they couldn’t bear to be closed any longer than that. “People need us. We’re the largest provider of free food in the city,” she explains.
Trepanier says that by Wednesday, all their regular guests had found them at the new location and they were seeing a lot of new faces too. The building at 323 Talbot is much larger than their first location, and flooding is no longer an issue – one of the reasons they moved from Queen Street.
Volunteer Karen Groeneweg says she loves the new location because it’s bigger and more organized and volunteers aren’t bumping into each other all the time. “Even the guests seem less agitated because close spaces are difficult for some of them.”
Building Friendships Over Soup
Anywhere between 80 and 100 guests eat at the Grace Cafe every day, and no one pays a thing. Though many come because they’re hungry, Groeneweg says it’s not just the food: “A lot of them are lonely and they just want to talk.”
Groeneweg started volunteering at the Grace Cafe six weeks after it opened, almost four years ago. She had always wanted to work at a soup kitchen so that she could really help people in need, and has loved working at the cafe. “I think the majority of people love to come and I like interacting with them and learning about their lives.”
The relationships between volunteers and guests is one of the things you will notice first when you walk into the Grace Cafe. Everyone is greeted with warmth and often called by name, though the volunteers don’t claim to know everyone who walks in the door. Trepanier says they cultivate the relationships because they really want their guests’ lives to get better. “We’ve gone to extra lengths to make it cozy and fun.” The cafe celebrates birthdays and gives away cakes, as well as clothes and necessities like hygiene items.
“It gives me something to do, but that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to help the people of St. Thomas.” –Karen Groeneweg
“If we can inject some joy and fun into it at all… I mean, it’s not going to heal permanently, but maybe it’ll get them through a rough spot.”
One of the ongoing struggles for Trepanier and the volunteers who have built relationships with their guests is their own limitations. They see people in all kinds of pain: physical, mental, emotional – everything under the sun, according to Trepanier.
“Once in a while we all have to stop and say, ‘Remember, we cannot cure mental health, we cannot end world famine.’” They recognize that there are other organizations dealing with those issues, and Trepanier says, “If we can get them through the day, the week, the winter – I’m fully satisfied.”
“It’s sweet and it’s sad and it’s rewarding and it’s really hard. It’s a whole bunch of stuff, but it’s good.” –Ginny Trepanier
How it all began
The cafe is much bigger than Trepanier imagined when it first occurred to her to start a soup kitchen. She was working at Ark Aid Street Mission in London at the time, and on the way to work drove past a young boy standing in the wind and sleet, extremely dirty and begging for money in the freezing cold. Trepanier says she said to God, ‘Somebody ought to do something!’ before turning around herself and giving the boy what she had, which was a couple Tim Hortons Roll Up The Rim winners. As she drove away, she saw his face and realized he had no idea what they were. “I never saw him again, but he’s part of this,” Trepanier says.
Not long after, Trepanier started talking to friends and coworkers about starting a soup kitchen. She got a lot of encouragement and some fears – ‘A woman doesn’t found a street ministry, it’s too dangerous,’ was one common objection, which she dismissed. She had a lot of experience serving food, as she worked as the Food Services Manager for eight years at Teen Challenge, an in-residence rehabilitation program.
“My idea was I would get a little place, I would plug in a coffee urn, and hand out some donuts,” Trepanier says. “It’s never been like that.” What started from an ache to help a freezing boy on the street has turned into a huge operation, yet Trepanier has never received funding from the government or the city. Even when it comes to donors, she says, “We don’t ask for money. We never do. It’s policy. People just give us money and that is their choice, and then they get a tax receipt because we’re a charity.”
Trepanier’s daily blog on Facebook keeps donors informed about what is happening at the cafe and what kind of items are needed at the moment, from men’s winter coats to coffee whitener.
Managing the flow of donations is a job in itself, and the volunteers are careful to use everything that is given, or pass it on to someone who can use it. In addition to that work is bookkeeping and keeping up with the government requirements. As Trepanier says, “Serving food is just a tiny part of it.”
The Grace Cafe stays true to Trepanier’s own convictions about why they do what they do. “Be warm & be fed” is written across the front window – part of a Bible verse from James 2:16: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” Trepanier says the Grace Cafe is “dedicated to the Lord and founded in the Lord, right from the beginning.”