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Collectively, these volunteers are making a big difference

The region’s 519 Community Collective group started as nothing more than a woman on a mission to help feed homeless or displaced persons, but over the last year has grown to something much more. Founder Julie Sawatzky now has an administrative team full of residents looking to help.

“I started a group on Facebook for people to kind of gravitate there and showcase their fears or thoughts or just experiences through the pandemic, and it was through that that I recognized that there was a huge need – people were going hungry in our backyards. That really resonated with me because I actually grew up on the mission field:  my parents were missionaries for six and a half years in a Third World country, so I grew up learning how to serve and just not turning a blind eye to needs when you see them,” she explained.

“I figured that now would be a good time to transition my group, and not just have it be about stories but actually start helping people. I started giving out food hampers kind of quietly, and by the time I started bringing more help on, my husband and I had given about 350 hampers out of our own food pantry.”

From there she started asking the online group for any food donations they could give, and it instantly took off. Members of the group continued to donate or help when asked by Sawatzky, giving them the ability to expand their services, helping more people in the region. After getting her food-handling certification, Sawatzky and team began cooking out of a commercial kitchen at a local church.

“We now have two teams cooking twice a week in this kitchen, pumping out hundreds of meals every week that we give out through our urban meal program,” she said of the program that helps people in a variety of circumstances.

“People who are fleeing abusive relationships. Maybe they just suffered a tragic loss. We have a lot of people who their spouse passes away and they just don’t have the capacity to go grocery shopping and stand in the kitchen and make a bunch of meals, so we have our food hamper program, the urban meal program. And then I realized that it’s not just about food that a lot of people are struggling – when they move into this place after being in a shelter, there’s nothing in there, especially for families,” Sawatzky said.

“I started putting the word out there and seeing if we could get furniture donations and then a program spawned out of that, the New Beginnings program, and now we have two storage units; we support on average five families and single seniors per week, helping them move into their new places, getting them furniture, bedding, towels toiletries cleaning supplies – all sorts through the community. We store all those items and then when we have the things we just gather all this stuff up and then deliver it to them.”

Over the summer, the group was at work in two community gardens, one in Kitchener and one in Cambridge, that grew produce to help feed residents through their food hamper or urban meals programs.

“We have planted and been able to harvest hundreds and hundreds of pounds of produce that we have given straight back into the community.”

A unique program emerged over the last year called the Little Free Pantries, which the group has been installing all over the region, with one in Breslau and one in Elmira. The idea comes from the popular little free libraries, where residents can come take what they want and leave what they want for someone else.

“We have 22 Little Free Pantries. There are four more in my driveway that are getting painted, and we’ll be heading out and placing those are all over the region.”

Two of her administrative team members, Rick Weber and Ana Enamorado, were on site last Wednesday to help unpack items from Sawatzky’s van into their community fridge, located behind Café Pyrus Outpost in Kitchener. The community pantry is a free take what you need and donate what you can food cabinet alongside a stocked fridge, tucked just out of site next to some picnic tables. It’s open every day, never locked and easily accessible.

Elmira’s Weber got involved with the 519 Community Collective when the pandemic left him with more time on his hands. He was looking for ways to give back.

“I had a bunch of barn boards sitting there from my father in law’s old barn and just decided to do something with it, built some birdhouses then started looking for charities to donate the funds to and stumbled across 519 on Facebook, so that’s where it started,” he explained.

“From there, I’m a guy with a pickup truck that hauled stuff that needed to be hauled and then when we started the New Beginnings program – were able to go in give them furniture, set them up basically, furnish the whole apartment so that’s been very exciting. Over the span of two weekends there were six families we were helping to furnish their places for them, things have really expanded quite rapidly.”

Started in March of last year, the Waterloo Region community group now hosts close to 7, 000 members.

“I saw the passion that Julie had for starting this and then we just started organizing and that was great,” added Enamorado.

Other than through their programs, Sawatzky and members also partake in volunteering at local homeless shelters, asking people what they need so they can try to get it for them.

“It all started out with just wanting to help people in general. We do a lot of support to the homeless community, the shelters, people living in motels, but we don’t just stop there – it’s essentially anyone who’s really in a really tough spot. We want to help support them in any way we can. So, we’ve got these programs established, the Region of Waterloo has reached out and I guess they consider us like a group of concerned citizens so we’re allowed to serve food to the public at our outreach nights and through our different programs. What started out very small has now become something quite big.”

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