Part One – Looking Back at Love in Action
It’s a hot summer Sunday afternoon in 2023. Tourists passing through Virgil on Niagara Stone Road would likely not notice the long line of men and women stretched across a hot parking lot less than one block away.
Voices in Spanish and Jamaican Patois and laughter rise and fall among those in line, patiently waiting for their turn to enter the Farmworker Hub. Two men from Sri Lanka working in a greenhouse park their bikes, greeting some of the Jamaican workers who live a few doors down. The line moves slowly, waiting for others laden with bags of necessities to emerge.
Once inside, each visitor is met with brightly coloured photos creating a cheerful atmosphere, many taken by farm workers of loved ones and scenes from their home countries. An enthusiastic welcome awaits at the front desk where contact information is gathered. It they are unable to find the work clothes needed, they can leave a request at the door upon leaving.
Local volunteers hustle, bagging up clothing and enjoying conversation with the men and women they have come to know over recent years. Cell phone photos of their children – their first steps or perhaps graduation from university – are eagerly shared with volunteers, offering a snapshot of the families they leave behind for 8 months of the year or more.
Our migrant neighbours working on local farms play an integral role in sustaining local agriculture and the resulting tourism in wine country. When the first wave of COVID hit in March 2020, the potential loss of the labour force presented a very real threat to the agricultural industry. Amidst the whirlwind of uncertainty and fear that spring, we became aware of urgent concerns of food and clothing needed for arriving farm workers, essential workers who were exempt from travel restrictions.
Our home was already full of boxes packed with welcome bags in preparation for the coming season. Thanks to the local community and the Buy Nothing Facebook group, it was soon overflowing with donated clothes and groceries – all while adhering to the stringent no-contact rules in place for everyone’s safety.
In the following months of 2020, the growing network of neighbours dug deep to meet the evolving needs created by the pandemic.
The following January of 2021, an ecumenical faith organization named Kairos, encouraged us to apply for a COVID relief grant they were administering. It was time to move to the next level as we became aware that there would be no quick fix.
Niagara Partners, a team comprised of five local women, was formed in response to this opportunity. Dianne Hughes brought years of experience working as Senior Development Advisor with World Vision. Julia Buxton Cox, already well known locally for running the Buy Nothing group on Facebook brought her superb organizational skills. Rev. Michelle Mercer, pastor of Gateway Church, provided an important spiritual and practical connection, coordinating members of her church as they delivered meals and eventually took over the administration for Bikes for Farmworkers. Donna Brown with Caribbean Workers Outreach Project (CWOP) contributed her skills as bookkeeper and myself as Niagara Workers Welcome organizer completed the team.
After the grant application was approved in March 2021, the impossible began to become a reality. The team connected via Zoom with a growing number of support groups and churches across Ontario, sharing ideas and resources.
Finding a suitable place to sort and distribute food and clothing was the first order of business. We quickly discovered there were no suitable or affordable locations in the NOTL area.
We were grateful to rent a house located at the back of the Cornerstone Virgil campus which provided a base to work from. After three months the NOTL Farmworkers Hub, as it later came to be known, moved into a portable also on the property. Thanks to the work of Dave Cox and his circle of friends it was transformed into a functioning space.
The response from the community was unprecedented and soon the portable was bursting at the seams. The list of volunteers grew exponentially as well as contributions from donors providing jeans, coats, hoodies, and other work necessities.
Local restaurants like the Garrison House stepped up to provide hot meals on special occasions ensuring that the men who were struggling with isolation on the farms felt appreciated and that they were not alone.
Each day of operation presented challenges along with fresh opportunities. New partnerships were developed allowing the Hub to share resources and benefit in many unexpected ways. Working with Nathan Dirks and Father Antonio Illas at established outreaches at Southridge Vineland and St. Alban’s Church in Beamsville allowed us to learn from their experience.
In fall 2022, the NOTL Farmworker Hub transitioned to the north wing of the Virgil Cornerstone campus, allowing further expansion and storage room for the growing outreach.
In 2023, COVID relief grants for farmworker support groups across the country were temporarily discontinued. Individual donations and community groups such as the Niagara-on-the-Lake Rotary Club ensured that the rent and other necessary costs were covered for the entire year. In addition, Cornerstone Church offered the second floor space as a drop-in centre. Thanks to generous locals, it was soon furnished with a fridge, pool and ping pong tables, and a comfortable seating area.
Former members of Niagara Partners continued to be involved in other community supports. Rev. Michelle Mercer moved to Peterborough accepting a position of lead pastor.
Thriving models of other well established farmworker outreaches such as Southridge Vineland and St. Alban’s Church in Beamsville are shining examples of the vitality that churches can bring to their communities, as well as the lives of farmworkers who have been marginalized for many years.
The Quest Health Clinic and Farmworker Hub operating out of Cornerstone Virgil have become an essential part of a caring community.
Some locals may have initially stepped in the doors as curious volunteers, but the friendships that evolved from their experience have been transformational.
The good work that rose out of the darkness of COVID 3 years ago is a tangible reminder of love in action, discovering joy, redemption and hope in even the darkest of days.