By Gerry Harvieux
Funny sometimes… how certain traits we have as individuals can do us such a disservice at one point in our lives, and years later prove beneficial. This past Friday was one of those times.
When I woke up Friday morning, I had a plan for my day. Working now as the head of marketing for the DPM Insurance Group, we’re heading into the New Year with some ambitious plans and I’ve been juggling the setup of a couple of these new initiatives. It wasn’t going to be a crazy pressure day, but it was going to be a full day, just not with the things I expected.
I often get myself into specific though evolving routines, and for the last several months, my morning routine entails sitting down at my desk by 5:30 – 6 am with my coffee and reading whatever local news I can find online. Friday, the first thing I came across was the AM 800 CKLW story about the struggles Street Help in Windsor has trying to provide for the homeless during this brutal cold snap we’re experiencing.
I say “we’re experiencing” in a very generic sense, because for most of us that essentially entails repeating certain curse words over and over while scraping ice and/or snow from our windshields or shivering for a few minutes while waiting for our vehicles to heat up. But for others – more than most of us realize – it so much more brutal than that.
Street Help’s administrator, Christine Wilson-Furlonger told CKLW they’re currently unable to provide shelter due to ongoing renovations, but are still feeding up to 400 people a day from their operation – both the homeless, and those with shelter but who are struggling financially and are not getting enough to eat. She added that those who are living on the street are in desperate need of cold weather gear and sleeping bags.
“We’re losing more spaces for the homeless to go to go in and keep from freezing to death, literally. So, sleeping bags are a big need right now,” she told CKLW, adding some need to layer two or three just to make it through the night.
Having been winter camping many times in my younger years – before getting up in the morning was accompanied by disgruntled sound effects and a protesting lower back – I appreciate the importance having proper winter gear. But that was a long time ago, and it was something I did by choice… well equipped and knowing that if it got to be too much, I could simply pack it in and go home. That’s not an option for those Street Help tries to assist.
So, I downed the rest of my coffee, donned my winter coat and went to stand out on my deck. It’s very quiet at that time of day, and the morning offered the kind of cold that makes the snow crunch beneath your boots. It becomes unpleasant very quickly. Twenty minutes, I told myself… I’m going to stay out here for 20 minutes and do my best to imagine what spending last night sleeping outside might have been like. After 15, I’d developed enough empathy to give something a shot.
Jumping back quickly to my opening line, as a kid I would often come up with various ideas that might seem a bit far-fetched, dangerous, or just plain dumb. Despite that, I would do my best to convince others to join in. At the age of 12, when I managed to convince three friends that laying down on the high side of a bike ramp while we took turns jumping each other on our bikes would be cool, my knack for persuasion was a dangerous thing.
Friday, that quarter hour standing on my deck in sub-zero temperatures gave me an idea that seemed far-fetched, but had the potential to assist Street Help’s challenges.
Having been involved in a wide variety of community projects and charitable fundraisers over the years, I appreciate the amount of work that goes into the successful planning and execution of a fundraising project. It can take hundreds of hours sometimes… weeks and even months. But it was brutally cold in the moment, and is going to continue to be brutally cold for days. So, I thought, what about a completely unplanned, unmanaged 24 hour-hour fundraiser/sleeping bag drive? Could I persuade a few people to get behind something like that?
Rolling with it, I posted an offer on social media to act as a drop off point for anyone who wanted to help… RIGHT AWAY. No raffle tickets to print up, no meal to prepare, no planning or setting up a rented hall. I was going to leave for Street Help at 10 am the following morning with whatever people wanted to contribute by then – if that was a single sleeping bag and two coats, so be it.
I emailed Adam Lally and Tom Mayhew at the Auto Mall and 15 minutes later had $1,100 to go buy cold-weather gear and backpack snack foods – items a volunteer I spoke with at Street Help said would help right away. People began messaging me immediately with offers to contribute. Before I was showered and dressed, the first bag with a heavy winter coat had been dropped off at my doorstep. That’s when I decided to let work know I was going to take my first vacation day of 2022.
Now, having lived and worked in Tilbury most of my life, I don’t know why I’m still so blown away by the generosity in our community, or the speed at which people are prepared to respond when there’s a call to help someone in need. Yet, by 3 pm, I was rapidly running out of space to put all the donated items that people were dropping off.
Auto Mall money in hand, I touched base with Dan Gragtmans at Tim Hortons, since the folks at Street Help said Tim’s cards in $5 and $10 denominations are a perfect way to help. They allow those on the street to go and get something hot to eat and drink when soup kitchens are closed. I decided that $200 in cards would be a smart way to spend at least some of the Auto Mall cash, and called Dan to avoid holding up the line while they set up 20 cards. Dan immediately offered to match it dollar for dollar, so that $200 became $400.
I returned home to even more drop offs, and a dear friend at my door with five brand new winter coats, another cold-weather sleeping bag, and several new hats and gloves she and her husband had just purchased. From there, I went and bought $220 for backpack snacks suggested by the Street Help volunteer I spoke with after reading the CKLW story. As an aside, you can get an amazing amount of such stuff for $220.
In the meantime, other people e-transferred me money to help. So, when I was ready to buy sleeping bags, the pool of available cash had been replenished, and I still had almost $1,000 for that. Canadian Tire stores in Tilbury, Chatham and the location on Walker Road in Windsor all agreed to deep discounts on their cold-weather sleeping bags once I explained what was going on. That allowed me to purchase a dozen cold weather sleeping bags instead of seven.
The following morning my phone was still blowing up and my dining room and living room were piled high with the items people had dropped off, as well as those I purchased. People had dropped off more backpack snacks. Kim Doucette at Ashely’s place called and asked me to stop on the way out of town and grab additional items they had ready to go. One local couple added another $300 in Tim’s cards to the pile, and with another drop off of cards, the total was now $730!
My sister and her husband came by to help organize and load, as did Doc Bryan. Together we filled nearly our vehicles and made our way to Windsor, stopping at the Walker Road Canadian Tire to spend the last $400 on sleeping bags and a winter coat. From there, we drove to Street Help and found several volunteers preparing and serving food. We unloaded our 24-hour haul – much to their amazement.
It took us all of 10 minutes to bring everything inside, then we were back on the road and headed home. Normally, I’d spend that drive listening to music or an audio book. Instead, I made a couple of quick phone calls and then drove the rest of the way in silence, thinking about it all.
The last two years has given us many reasons to complain about our lot in life. I’m certainly not trying to diminish the hardship so many have endured, but for the majority of people, the word “inconvenience” comes to mind. In all that – far too many people have the added challenge of sleeping in an alley while the mercury drops into the negatives and the wind howls mercilessly. There are those who, even sheltered, have to look into the eyes of their children and wonder how they were going to feed them the next day, and the day after that.
Think about having to decide between paying rent and feeding your kids… keeping the heat on or feeding yourself, or figuring out where the safest place is to sleep without freezing to death. That’s not a dramatic or exaggerated statement. It happens… in Windsor and other places within 30 minutes of where we live… FOR REAL!
Before I get too far down the rabbit hole here, I’ll make my final point. That is, it’s always better to do something to try and help than to do nothing at all. Did I have the few extra thousand dollars kicking around to provide those needed items? No. But I had a bit of time, a decent network of contacts to reach out to, the fortune to count some very generous people among my friends and colleagues… and no fear of floating an idea some people may have seen as unrealistic. But like the old saying goes, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take… and it was way better than jumping our bikes over each other for amusement.
Look, you don’t have to make it your life’s mission to take on the problems of the world. And no, you’re not going to be able to help everyone. But with surprisingly little effort, we all have the ability to make a meaningful impact on someone who is suffering… someone who is struggling to just get through one more day, or one more night sleeping out in the cold.
I don’t care what life choices some of these people have made that got them to where they are. I don’t care what substances they may abuse that contributes to keeping them there. Go stand outside for 15 minutes the next time the temperature is hovering around -10 degrees, and if those kinds of things can keep you from feeling any sort of empathy, any sort of compassion, and then not doing whatever little thing you might be able to do to ease some of their suffering… well, I don’t know what else to say.
What I can say is this. A small number of the people living on the streets of Windsor in the dead of winter were warmer last night, and had something extra to eat, because total strangers who live a 30-minute drive east on the 401 decided to combine their efforts to help in a small way. It didn’t solve any problems for the long term, but I’m perfectly OK with that. In fact, it just reinforced my belief that I live in a town where people still care about one another, and who understand that 100 hundred small acts of kindness can collectively make a big impact.