The Abundant Community

Dec. 23, 2021

There’s a sense of anticipation in the air, helpers are scurrying about the room, getting ready for “show time”. The crackling of bags being opened, laughter and storytelling resonate. The walls are decorated with colourful posters and photos of familiar faces. Displays of gifted items are sorted and tidied in readiness.The door opens to the lineup outside and soon sounds of warm greetings permeate the air – hola, wha gwaan, ayubowen, mixed with giggles and grace at less than perfect attempts.

It has all the good feels of a Christmas gathering, only it is taking place in the summer on a Thursday night. During a heat wave. A typical evening at the Farmworker’s Hub.

There are surprise reunions with friends. Anneliese Pankratz began supplying workers with warm clothes close to 30 years ago when she befriended some men in her neighbourhood.  She eagerly searches for familiar faces beneath the masks in the lineup outside, proving that at 91 years she can fist pump with the best of them.

A steady flow of farm workers at the NOTL Public Library tent is getting their vaccine cards laminated.There are spontaneous drop offs and drop ins from neighbours, politicians, doctors, farmers and business owners curious to check it out and occasionally contribute to the operating costs (thank you!!)

Just down the street another lineup waits patiently outside at Bikes for Farmworkers. Mark Gaudet, Terry Weiner and a dedicated bike repair/superhero crew work year round to provide refurbished bikes to sell to the farm workers at $20 apiece.At both the Hub and the bike shop Covid protocols have been strictly observed, requiring all involved to be double vaccinated.

Despite the ominous cloud of Covid impacting our community, there have been moments of illumination breaking through, providing us with enough hope and clarity to take one step forward at a time.

Although there has been growing support for the men and women working in our farms in recent years it wasn’t until this past February that a group of locals connected via Zoom to develop a strategy to reach out and meet their needs more effectively during these exceptional times. Each of them brought a wealth of experience and innovative ideas to meet practical needs, as well as a solid understanding of the challenges that farm workers face.Thanks to the generosity of Cornerstone Church and a grant, a space was secured to store and sort donations of necessities

Donna Brown heads up the Caribbean Workers Outreach Project, a well known faith based outreach operated by the United Church in Niagara for the past 30 years. Before moving to Canada almost 20 years ago she came to know many of the farm workers through her banking career in Jamaica.

Julia Buxton Cox is well known for establishing the Buy Nothing community in Niagara on the Lake. The hugely successful philosophy of reducing waste and providing mutual aid among neighbours is sweeping around the globe and Niagara on the Lake is no exception.  The basis of a sharing economy is the inspiration behind the Farmworkers Hub. It’s success in galvanizing a community to positive action is an inspiration to all involved!

Dianne Hughes is retired from her career as major donor fundraiser at World Vision. She understands the challenges workers face when injured or ill, providing the spiritual and practical support necessary to ease their anxiety. She has also taken on the role of scheduling volunteers at the Hub.

Rev. Michelle Mercer is the pastor of Gateway Church. For the past 5 years they have assembled and distributed Workers Welcome kits. In addition to his involvement at Bikes for Farmworkers, retired fire chief Ken Eden puts his pickup truck to work doing Costco runs, helping the men at a neighbouring farm fill their crates with necessities to ship home. Gateway members lent helping hands to ensure that several hundred farm workers were able to receive Father’s Day and Thanksgiving dinners.

Community involvement has grown grassroots style through the Workers Welcome concerts and Peach Picker Picnics. Over 500 Workers Welcome kits donated by locals have been delivered each spring to Caribbean farm workers the past few years. Spanish speaking farm workers are welcomed with food and necessities by churches in the Anglican diocese, a well established outreach presently headed up by Rev. Antonio Illas.

Some of the extraordinary stories we continue to hear show just how deeply members of the community show they care.

Local optometrist Dr. Marianne Hopkins and her team at their Mary St. office have gone above and beyond to provide much needed treatments for eye injuries common to farm workers. She also donated several hundred sunglasses in the Welcome kits to provide further protection.

Tracey Dau engaged in conversation with Kevin, a young man who she suspected was having difficulty hearing. She set up an appointment with Melissa Mitreski, an audiologist at the Family Hearing Clinic where it was determined he had profound hearing loss. The complications were many as he was transferring to a farm in Simcoe the following day. Tracey was committed, travelling all the way to Simcoe and driving him to the same audiologist at her Hamilton clinic for three appointments.  A few days before he returned home, Kevin received the final adjustments to a pair of hearing aids, thanks to the generosity of the audiologist. He was incredulous at the kindness of others who enabled him to hear his children’s voice over the phone for the first time.

These are just a few examples of the many stories emerging from our community.

So often we were asked – why are you doing this? The simple answer – because we care. We are still receiving texts and voice messages from Mexico and the Caribbean expressing gratitude.

CBC Radio’s Metro Morning aired a few of these good news stories from Niagara on the Lake in a four-part series last week called “Ketch a Fyah”. The response was overwhelmingly positive as people hungry for good news followed along each morning.

There is no doubt that 2022 holds much uncertainty. Seeking ways to raise funds for essentials such as crisis care and rent for the Farmworkers Hub will be a priority, but if the past few years are any indication we can meet those challenges with faith and confidence.

The experience of journeying alongside our neighbours on the farms has impacted everyone in different ways. By sharing in their stories and their struggles it has enlarged our own hearts, increasing our capacity for joy in ways we could not have imagined.

Best of all – we don’t have to wait for Christmas to celebrate and share the joy!