Friday, December 11, 2009

A gathering place for women

This morning as usual, I woke up to CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning show. They were interviewing a woman who has bipolar affective disorder--what we used to call "manic depressive disorder"--and she was describing how she manages to stretch her meagre monthly disability cheque to cover her rent, food, and sundries.

She rolls her change, using the dimes to buy coffee, but keeping the quarters for necessities. She buys everything on sale at the grocery store. And she comes to a downtown resource centre called The Well/La Source, where she can get a hot lunch, clothing that's been rehabilitated by the centre's sewing club, and the chance to sit and chat with her friends in a safe, clean space.

I know The Well--in fact, I was one of its first co-ordinators, back when it still called itself a "drop-in" rather than a "resource centre." In those days, it was located in the basement of St. Luke's Anglican church on Somerset West, and there were two employees--the cook and me.

We saw about 40 women each day, and while we could offer them coffee and lunch, our services were pretty limited. We did have a play space for the kids, and some beat-up couches where the women could relax while they drank their coffee; and from time to time I was able to help a woman link to a resource she needed, or just talk about something that was bothering her. But most of the time I was too busy just keeping the place running to actually offer much help.

We had quite a few regular visitors--Jenny, a beautiful woman rumoured to have been a concert pianist, who spent most of her time scribbling undecipherable notes in a lined notebook; Sandra, an abused wife who'd left home only to find herself living on the street and carrying her possessions in plastic grocery bags; Ellen, who suffered from both schizophrenia and alcoholism, who believed she had "a Chinaman" living in her stomach, whom she tried to exorcise through liberal doses of cayenne pepper on everything she ate.

Then, as now, we depended on the Ottawa Food Bank and private donations to keep the place running; and from time to time people would drop by with bundles of donations--clothing, dishes, and on one memorable occasion, a huge box of Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls.

The day the rolls came in, we'd originally planned a group visit to the Ex; but it was raining, and the thought of trudging around midway and exhibits in streaming rain punctuated by the occasional lightning bolt just didn't appeal to any of us.

That's when I remembered the bingo game someone had donated. It had been sitting in my office gathering dust, amongst the boxes of toys and trinkets that well-meaning donors had dropped off. (In those days, we couldn't use that kind of thing much, as giving a Barbie to one woman's child, or a bottle of cologne to another visitor could incite jealousies and fuel long-standing rivalries. So we just collected the stuff and let it accumulate dust.)

In any case, those cinnamon rolls had to be used at once, since they'd just passed their "best before" date the day before; and it was raining, the women were disappointed that the Ex trip had been cancelled, and I wanted to do something special to make up for it. So the cook and I broke out the baking trays, lining tray after tray with cinnamon rolls.

And I announced that today was Bingo Day, and there would be prizes. As soon as the rolls came out of the oven, the game would commence.

Women's faces lit up; the smell of baking rolls filled the cavernous, musty church basement; and I congratulated myself on my brilliance. A couple of visitors helped me set up the tables, and we arranged the prizes on a table near the coffeemaker; and then the rolls came out of the oven, and I rushed off to help drizzle the icing on them (because, as everyone knows, a runny mixture of icing sugar and water is an essential component of Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls).

The bingo game got under way, and things were going swimmingly. I was handing out prizes--a bottle of bath salts, a package of paper party hats, a My Little Pony--and the winners beamed with pleased excitement. We took a short break from the game, and people helped themselves to the runny, gooey, still-warm cinnamon buns.

As they bit into them, though, I saw puzzled expressions, and a few women jumped up and ran for the washrooms. And then a few more left, and the rest were spitting half-chewed buns back onto their plates.

Apparently I'd missed a critical element: I'd forgotten to keep an eye on Ellen. Wary of her "Chinaman," she'd managed to slip into the kitchen while the buns were cooling, and had doused the entire batch with enough cayenne pepper to choke a horse. I am here to tell you: cinnamon buns and cayenne pepper do not mix.

Once we'd recovered, though, the women insisted that we reconvene the bingo game, which ran for another couple of hours. In fact, for a while it was a weekly institution, attracting a large crowd each Tuesday after lunch. Eventually our supply of donated trinkets began to dwindle, though, and the bingo winners had to settle for bragging rights.

The Well has long since moved--it's at St. John's Church now, at the corner of Elgin and Somerset; and it's grown from a one-person operation to a full-fledged resource centre, with showers and outreach workers and all sorts of things. The need for The Well has never diminished--in fact, it's grown, and they now see at least twice as many visitors as we used to get.

But it still lives up to its original purpose, as envisioned by one of its founders, Rev. Sally Eaton: "A Gathering Place for Women." If you're looking for a charity this year, I don't think you could go too far wrong by donating to The Well/La Source.

1 comment:

Mary Wilson said...

Karen, thank you for sharing this memory. The cinnamon bun recipe does sound a bit ... um.. unusual...