When my husband Dion went through the most significant crisis of his MS journey a few years ago, we were faced with many decisions, including: did he need to live in a long-term care facility? If not, could our home be adjusted to accommodate his needs? What ensued was a long renovation to our house, one that was made possible through the gifts of many people, and yes, the bank. Along the way, we had a number of meetings with medical teams in order to discern what Dion needed, what I needed, and what we needed as a family. 

We determined that our basement would become Dion’s main living space, an option made possible through the discovery of a through-the-floor lift, aka a residential elevator. My brother/contractor organized the many trades people needed to dig down so that the ceilings would be high, build an accessible bathroom, create a space for a hospital bed and all the necessary mobility devices, make a cozy area for all of us to hang out, and install the elevator. The transformation was remarkable and enabled Dion to move home after living elsewhere for over a year. 

One recent evening, just as Dion, Cate and I sat down to dinner, there was a loud “thump”. At the time, I was the only one who noticed it. We figured it must have been something outside and proceeded to eat. When Dion got in the elevator to get downstairs in preparation for the arrival of his Personal Support Worker, it would not go down. The lights came on as they should, but nothing. I tried calling two different after-hours repair companies, only to learn that no one at either could service our particular unit. Stumped, we decided that Dion needed to be carried down the stairs (a precarious, but necessary choice) so that he could get to bed. We presumed that by the next day we could get the elevator fixed. That was three weeks ago. 

Since that time Dion has felt trapped, his independence halted. Through the effort of a mechanic, Dion’s wheelchair was able to be moved downstairs. That chair weighs in at over 400 pounds, making it necessary to leave it in the basement. Instead, we have a rental wheelchair that now lives on our main floor. At least three strong people are needed to lift Dion up and down the stairs each day, or at least every other day. 

When Dion is in the basement, Cate and I need to make sure that he has the things he needs. We have Personal Support Workers in twice a day, but only in the morning and evening. That leaves a large gap in Dion’s day. Plus, Cate is in school and I have a job, one that helps support our family. Internally, I battle with needing to be in multiple places at once, sometimes terrified that I am failing at everything. Dion often says that MS is “our” disease. It is one that each of us (including Cate) is required to carry in different ways, some more visible than others. 

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day we recall how Jesus knelt and washed the feet of his friends. Having someone else wash your feet is an intimate and vulnerable thing. These last three weeks have felt a lot like that: intimate and vulnerable. We have felt at a loss, like there is nothing we can DO to fix the issue. We do not understand elevators and are at the mercy of those who do. Dion has needed people to literally pick him up and I can’t be one of them, as I simply lack the strength. We have prayed and begged for a solution, one that as of yet has not come. Honestly, Easter is around the corner and yet right now feels terribly far away. 

I trust that at some point the part will arrive and the elevator will be fixed. Until then we are surrounded by friends and family eager to help. This is something I never want to take for granted. Community is a fundamental part of surviving hard things. My gratitude, mingled with tears, streams through the challenge. 

I have been carrying my “office” in a backpack since 2012. It began because of the decision to extinguish as much expense as possible at what was then Parkdale Neighbourhood Church. At the time we were in financial crisis, uncertain of what lay ahead. I had been tasked by the Board with re-imagining our vision and way of being in the neighbourhood. One of the first things I suggested is that we give up our rented space, purge most of our belongings, and spill into the streets. That was the beginning of The Dale.

Near the beginning of my career I developed a friendship with someone who had spent most of their teenage years and twenties living outdoors. I distinctly remember their shock that I didn’t carry basic necessities at all times: “what do you mean you don’t have what you need in your bag?!” For this person, survival required forethought. The gift of that lesson still resonates with me, and most definitely impacted The Dale’s ability to become a community without walls. Though I admittedly don’t carry everything I could, I do have the following with me at all times: a pencil case, a tiny stapler, post-it notes, paperclips, scissors, a laptop, a USB, a backup drive, two files for active paper work, stamps, envelopes, and screen cleaner. I also have three American dollars tucked away, bills that were a gift from someone when things were especially desperate. I recall making the decision to place them in our petty cash so that should things get even more desperate we would have it to exchange and use as a last hurrah. They remind me to never take for granted what it means to live on the edge AND how far we have come.

Today I set up a printer in our new-to-us office. Yes, our OFFICE. The space became available to us in the building that has housed us since the beginning of the pandemic. It might not be a long-term thing, but it is a thing right now. Even as I write this, it all feels surreal. It is a surprisingly bright, basement room that we are able to make our own. We have even been gifted WIFI access by other tenants in the building. Grace upon grace.

I often share that the decision to become a nomadic community, a choice born out of crisis, has become one of our greatest gifts. Our people, who in large part understand what it means to be transient, gave us the courage to step out in faith and have taught us so much along the way. With their help, The Dale has come to more fully inhabit the neighbourhood of Parkdale. We have partnerships with a wonderful variety of organizations. By keeping our overhead costs extremely low, we can pour our resources into our programming and directly impact our community. Over the years we have slowly yet steadily grown, not unlike a phoenix rising from the ashes. When I step back and try to take it all in, I am filled with gratitude and awe.

I don’t think I will ever stop carrying my office in a backpack. I used all of the familiar contents today at the new desk, but I didn’t leave them there- I put them back in my bag, thinking again of my friend’s counsel to stay prepared. The Dale needs to remain nimble. If anything, having an office hopefully just increases our agility. Now we have a place to stash our backpacks while we stay spilled out in the neighbourhood. As one person once said about where to find The Dale, “just look for them on the street, natch.” May that continue to be the expectation.

The Dale van, affectionately known as Morrison, is being retrieved by Joanna from our parking spot that is a quick walk away from our primary space. Morrison is a long-term dream come to life. Years ago, the idea of getting a vehicle was birthed as a way of further embracing our nomadic nature. As a church and community organization without our own walls we want to fully inhabit our neighbourhood. Being on foot has served us well, though there have been times when we simply couldn’t carry everything we needed to, especially for example, when helping a community member move into housing. 

Morrison is a white cargo van, the smallest in a line used largely by businesses. Someone once commented that The Dale had gone “postal” because it is the same type of van used by Canada Post. Another told us, with a grin, that it looks like a toaster. Whatever your thoughts on the appearance, to us it is a beautiful: the result of much hope, hard work and a lot of prayer. 

Today is a Wednesday and we are loading Morrison with sleeping bags, blankets, socks, hats, hand sanitizer, Gatorade, snack packs of peanuts, and pepperoni sticks, a collection of things purchased through a grant from the United Way. We also have stacks of sandwiches, made by people from Christ Church St. James, and “Winter Kits”, made possible by money raised by students of Rosethorn Junior Public School during their Spirit Week. Our work is clearly made possible through the support of a wonderfully varied network. 

Olivia and Kim, a member of our Outreach team, load their arms with things, as they will walk ahead to connect with people and let them know the whereabouts of the van. Joanna and I drive the van to one of our typical spots, in the parking lot of a little strip mall which includes our partner, The Salvation Army Thrift Store. Today there is no spot, and so we drive to another location, alongside an area where many of our friends hang out. It is a nice day, one that suggests Spring is not too far off, while still being brisk. 

We have conversation after conversation with people, while distributing the contents of the van. People repeatedly comment how nice it is to have access to new things, while even getting to choose the colour of Gatorade they want to drink (everyone has a strong opinion about which one is best). I am reminded of the privilege of choice, something that I all too often take for granted. More often than not, people decline what they don’t need, preferring that it go to someone who does. 

By mid afternoon we are done. We tidy up Morrison, compare notes from the day, and comment yet again, “how surreal is it that we have a van?” As we close up the back with a satisfying clunk, I give thanks: for the donor who made the vehicle possible, for everyone who contributes to keeping it full, for The Dale team (both staff and volunteers), for the community who inspires us, and for the astounding provision of our Creator. 

It is always a challenge to capture and share everything that happens at The Dale. I think though that our 2020 Annual Report tells a compelling story, one of resilience and hope in the midst of a pandemic. The Dale is a group effort. To everyone who is a part of it: our core community, staff, Board, partners, volunteers, donors, supporters- THANK YOU. The Dale is a group effort. Together we are building something special that is transformative for a lot of people, including me.

It started innocently. A few of us were chatting from a distance during one of The Dale’s meal-for-takeaway days until one comment was misconstrued. In less than a few seconds things got really hot between two people, with one of them uttering threats and name-calling. We all tried to intervene in order to de-escalate the tension, which included me endeavouring to calm one person down, while the other staff ushered one person across the street. The yelling escalated and culminated in a mooning. Things settled after this. I spent some time helping the person left behind try to process what had just happened.

It was admittedly with some surprise and trepidation that we noticed the other person making their way back to us. What happened next is the real point of me writing today. We got to witness repentance and forgiveness. The offender placed a coin in my hand, saying “please give this to our friend so they can buy a coffee. And let them know I am sorry.” I delivered the message, not confident of how it would be received. I could see a softening of the shoulders and was thrilled to hear, “I will shake hands”. Not only did they shake hands, they talked through what happened. It ended with an embrace.

Being able to identify and own what we have done to hurt someone is not often an easy task. Being able to accept an apology can also be a challenge. Also difficult is that forgiveness can be confused with pardoning or condoning behaviour. Repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation are all brave acts of vulnerability. Witnessing our two friends fight and reconcile within a very short period of time filled me with joy. I wanted to skip down the street. They reminded me of the value of cultivating forgiveness as an ongoing practice.

Note: This story is shared with permission.

Ernesto was one of the first people I met when I arrived in Parkdale. He looked me in the eye and said, “Ciao, Buongiorno, Bonjour, Buenos dios- do you know what I am saying?” He went on to introduce himself as a Maestro with a sly grin, explaining that he loved to play the piano and sing, especially opera.

Music was something that marked our entire relationship. I still have handwritten lists of songs that Ernesto asked me to learn on the piano so that I could accompany him. We regularly performed Speak Softly Love- The Love Theme from The Godfather, Ava Maria, and O Sole Mio in Monday drop-ins and almost always at our annual February Feast Open Stage. Whenever Ernesto sat at the piano himself, he would end every single song (everything from the Brady Bunch Theme to the most serious of classical pieces) with a little, happy, almost comedic flourish. Music regularly brought him to tears.

Ernesto also loved to bake and cook. He liked to describe his favourite meals and always had a deep desire to share food with others. I remember him making a special Italian dessert at a Dale Retreat. For years he actively dreamed of making linguine with clams for the entire drop-in community. When The Dale experienced financial constraints Ernesto offered to make a table of pies to help raise funds. I always knew him to be both hospitable and generous.

Ernesto was a big personality with big emotions. He could go from 0 to 60 to 0 in no time flat. This volatility was challenging, especially in the early days of our relationship. I learned it was important to not back down with Ernesto and that an injection of humour could help bring him back. I know that we grew to have real respect for one another. Whenever we parted it became custom for me to say, “Ernesto, you are a scholar and a gentlemen, and it was a pleasure to see you today” to which he would say, “it takes one to know one, and the pleasure was all mine”.

A favourite memory of Ernesto is when he insisted on taking me, Dion, Cate, and Joanna to Red Lobster. I don’t think he really had the money to do so, but it didn’t matter. We all knew it was important to honour Ernesto by accepting his gift. We sat in a large booth and chatted about all kinds of things. He even bought us flowers.

For as long as I can remember, Ernesto had a variety of health challenges. Just days ago those challenges came to an end when Ernesto passed away. Quite honestly, his death doesn’t seem real. He was a memorable person, one who guests of The Dale would always ask after, even after a single meeting. I know there are many people who will feel his absence, especially the family who survives him. I would like to extend my condolences to all who now grieve.

Ernesto, I know that Ciao means both hello and goodbye and so, “Ciao”. I will miss you, as will The Dale. I know that we share a faith that provides hope for a life beyond this one. This means that I look forward to seeing you again. You were a scholar and a gentlemen, and yes, a Maestro.

Ernesto Paparella, January 4, 1949 to January 10, 2021

As I try to process the events of this year, I find myself thinking of the turn of phrase, “gold in the shadows”. In some of the darkest of circumstances and conversations, I have caught glimpses of light. I do not want to negate the fullness of the challenges; I also do not want to dismiss the good as though it is fool’s gold. This is a strange tension.

At The Dale, we have experienced a shocking amount of provision, everything from a hand washing station to Personal Protective Equipment to fresh food to grocery cards to an Outreach Vehicle. It is amazing, beautiful and admittedly sometimes overwhelming. When faced with such outpouring, I cannot help but think of how many people do not experience such generosity. And then, as a community we get to re-distribute the abundance, and light penetrates the darkness.

Encampments, while not new, have grown exponentially over the pandemic. The residents of one encampment that we are especially connected to, have reminded me repeatedly of how “making home” can happen in the most unexpected of places. Have these friends been denied affordable housing? Yes. Have they also created a space of welcome, belonging and fierce comradery? Yes. Gold in the shadows.

Having people line up to get a meal for take-away is not our style. We much prefer sitting around a table and passing a platter of food, loving the way relationships are built when you regularly eat together. I find it startling that there are a number of people now connected to The Dale who have never been in one of our drop-ins because they have met us during the pandemic. It has been helpful to hear from these same people that they can tell something unique is happening, even in the snaking queue down the street. I nodded in agreement as one person told me they feel “seen”, sharing that I feel the same way. “I think we are learning to have one another’s backs”.

We have friends who, during the lockdown, have no access to a bathroom. There are few places to sit and warm up. There is deep loneliness. I can’t make sense of any of it. What continues to move me is the way people rally in times of trial. I have witnessed people sharing their only meal for the day. Someone sent us a box of plastic bags in the mail from way out of town because they knew we needed them to give out food. A core member of The Dale gave us a Tim Hortons card that they had received as a birthday gift, so that we could give it to someone who might need it more. Others have fund-raised, or mobilized people to gather food and supplies. Even though we can’t touch, we have taken time to stop, really look one another in the eye, and offer peace.

When our friend Jahn died, we feared not being able to have a proper goodbye. Then The Dale, along with the Health Centre planned an outdoor opportunity to honour him and share our grief. More recently there have been multiple people who have passed away. The combination of winter and the impending lockdown has made it more difficult to come up with a plan, but there is one in the works: distributing memorial cards of each person along with a candle, a rose, and a journal. While we might not be together, there is something comforting about having access to the same supplies to collectively honour our people. Some of the shadows get chased away.

There have been some very difficult days this year. For me, there was one day in particular when the tap got turned on and I could not stop crying. It was as though this tender reed was about to snap. Then a few people calmly listened, my daughter bought me a Bubble Tea, I listened to a voicemail of encouragement from someone at The Dale, and I fell to my knees in prayer. Not everything was fixed the next day. I still cried. By day three or four the tears came with less frequency until I suddenly realized that part of what I desperately needed was the space to let all the emotions out, and safe people to be with me along the way. In that moment of recognition I felt the warm glow of gold.

“Earthquakes make gold veins in an instant” is the title of an article I recently read. The earthquake that is the pandemic has wreaked havoc in such a variety of ways. Like all of us, I just want it to go away. And somehow, in the most unexpected of ways, that same earthquake has created some gold. It might be hard to spot. A good place to look though is in the shadows.

It is now Advent, that time when we prepare and wait in expectant hope for Christmas. 

I feel pensive about this season. On the one hand, I love it: the candles being lit one by one, slowly bringing light to the darkness, the traditions that have come to be a part of it, the growing excitement for the arrival of Jesus. On the other, I have a deep sense of unresolved longing: for hope to manifest itself in the total healing of people, for justice to roll, for the kingdom to get here fully and completely.

Oftentimes when I am full of all kinds of feelings, I turn to music. Yesterday I listened to this song, on repeat:

Blessed are the ones who do not bury
All the broken pieces of their heart
Blessed are the tears of all the weary
Pouring like a sky of falling stars

Blessed are the wounded ones in mourning
Brave enough to show the Lord their scars
Blessed are the hurts that are not hidden
Open to the healing touch of God

The Kingdom is yours; the Kingdom is yours
Hold on a little more, this is not the end
Hope is in the Lord, keep your eyes on Him

Blessed are the ones who walk in kindness
Even in the face of great abuse
Blessed are the deeds that go unnoticed
Serving with unguarded gratitude

Blessed are the ones who fight for justice
Longing for the coming day of peace
Blessed is the soul that thirsts for righteousness
Welcoming the last, the lost, the least

Blessed are the ones who suffer violence
And still have strength to love their enemies
Blessed is the faith of those who persevere
Though they fall, they’ll never know defeat

Common Hymnal, Wilson, Spencer, Massey, Keyes

I find the idea that we are blessed when we are suffering a relief, and I also wonder, what does it mean? How does it even make sense? Years ago, I did a word study on the word ‘blessed’. I discovered that its root means to consecrate and speak well of, most often used toward God. To bless something means to view it as holy and sacred. Viewed through this lens, I believe that God consecrates our grief and poverty. God holds up and makes blessed those who are broken, revealing them as precious and having connection to Him. Similarly, when we seek peace, when we show mercy, when we mourn and when we are meek, God is connected to us. There is not an absence of God in life’s greatest challenges. 

I find comfort in this, especially right now, when so many things seem to be on fire. This year has stripped many things bare. We have all, in one way or another, experienced loss. For many in my own circle, the loss has inflated poverty and marginalization. Somehow in all of this, I have also noticed a surge of resiliency, a desire to create change, and increased resourcefulness. To quote CS Lewis, I do believe that “Aslan is on the move”.

Instead of straining ahead to Christmas, I do want to sit in Advent and look for the ways light is creeping into the picture, and for the ways it is already here. I pray for a hope that might persevere and be rooted in trust, a hope that sings, “hold on a little more, this is not the end”.

Today is an exciting day. Today we picked up our new outreach vehicle, a purchase made possible through the generosity of an anonymous donor. Today we further embrace that we are a community without our own building. We might not have walls, but we have wheels!

The Dale builds and supports relationships with people, many of whom are accustomed to being marginalized due to poverty, and all of its resulting challenges. During the COVID-19 pandemic we are taking action to ensure that people with these vulnerabilities receive tangible care in the form of food, supplies (including PPE, sleeping bags, blankets, etc.) and emotional care (phone calls, physically distant visits, etc.) 

COVID-19 has exposed how great the social divide is in this city and throughout our world. People who are under-housed have lost regular access to basic necessities. As an organization without our own building, The Dale has to creatively respond to our community’s needs, especially as we face the second wave of the virus, and winter. Of the five partner buildings that The Dale uses for its programming, only one has remained open through the pandemic. As a result, The Dale has identified the need to focus on outdoor outreach, including creating “drop-in” spaces around the neighbourhood by setting up chairs and outdoor heaters. By doing this we will be able to nurture relationships, discern people’s ongoing needs, and distribute food and supplies.

In keeping with The Dale’s philosophy, the emphasis will be on service provision that is rooted in relationship. We believe that this van offers:

Increased flexibility in terms of where to run a drop-in.

Increased capacity to assist community members with moving into housing. 

Increased capacity for pick-up and delivery of food and other resources. 

Increased visibility for The Dale around the neighbourhood. 

While this decision has been prompted by COVID-19, we know a vehicle will offer long-term benefit to The Dale (in fact, it has been a long-time dream). We have prioritized outdoor outreach since 2012, during which we have built a high level of trust with the community. Our commitment to being present on the street-level has been deeply held for years and will continue with or without a pandemic. 

We are grateful to our donor, Nigel at Formula Ford Lincoln Sales, and Pierre at AON Insurance (thank you all for answering my limitless questions) for bringing this project to life. Now to work, but first we celebrate!

Since March The Dale has been serving meals to-go, all outside. We set up outside of 201 Cowan Avenue. Every six feet along the sidewalk is a strip of bright yellow tape, a visual reminder that a line is now necessary. Sometimes the number of people snakes all the way to Queen Street, around the corner and down the block.

We miss not being able to share a meal around a table. The Dale is motivated to build and nurture participatory community, and we lament how the pandemic has impacted this. Having said that, there are no shortage of important and oftentimes beautiful moments that happen as we interact in line and around the neighbourhood on the street.

We can always hear this person coming, because their wheelchair has a loose shock and a missing wheel. Though in obvious need, it took some time for this person to feel safe to ask for or receive help. It was a long series of fairly short interactions that led to a significant conversation, one that has led to putting a plan in action for repairs to be completed on their mobility device.

Laid out on the sidewalk, we stopped to make sure this person was breathing. Fortunately, we were able to have a bit of a conversation and provide some water. It was clear that the day had been a very difficult one so far. At one point he reached out to grab a hand, so hungry for a brief, healthy touch. In that moment of connection, he spoke words of encouragement to each of us. We left feeling like everyone involved had just received a gift.

Some people in the line are very new to The Dale and have no context for how life in this community looked pre-COVID. It is fun to tell stories of drop-ins and open mic nights, of cooking together and playing board games, of making music and sharing prayer requests. It is encouraging to hear the new folks telling their own stories of The Dale: of how good a certain meal was, of making new friends, of eating freezies together in the heat of the summer, of discovering that we meet for church in a parking lot, and of how the bad weather doesn’t stop us from being “open”.

One day a person brought us two bags full of plastic bags, having noticed that we need them to hold all the things we are giving away. Someone else painted us a picture. Another gifted me a used tripod for my daughter, knowing that she is studying photography. These presents remind us that everyone is built to both give and receive, a value that cannot even be quashed by our current circumstances.

The poet John O’Donahue says that, “A life that wishes to honour its own possibility has to learn too how to integrate the suffering of dark and bleak times into a dignity of presence. Letting go of old forms of life, a tree practises hospitality towards new forms. It balances perennial energies of winter and spring within its own living bark. The tree can reach towards the light, endure wind, rain and storm, precisely because it is rooted.”

The Dale wants to be such a tree. Our roots are deep. We know who we are. We believe in what we do. We will be in the neighbourhood rain, snow, or shine. While the line is not our preference, we will seek to make it as Dale-ish as possible. There is grief, yes AND God is making a way through the sadness. For all of this we are grateful.