A Morning with the Salvation Army's Foot Soldiers
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A Morning with the Salvation Army’s Foot Soldiers

Dorothy Cornish, packing food for the food drive.

With Christmas only a week away, the Salvation Army York Community Church in Weston is gearing up for its annual food and toy drives. Since November, the church has been collecting and packaging toys and food to meet the needs of the community’s less fortunate, and over the holiday season it will hand out more than fifty thousand toys to approximately fifteen hundred families, as well as packages of food and grocery store vouchers to no less than five hundred households. Earlier this week, Torontoist visited the church and spoke with the drives’ staff and volunteers.

Peter Park, Youth Pastor

Peter Park and Dorothy Cornish, moving bags of toys out of the church’s elevator.

Torontoist: How many households does the toy drive help?
Park: Last year, the church’s toy drive reached out to twelve hundred families. This year we’re reaching out to about fifteen hundred.
In the past, we used to be able to give out toys to the older groups of kids, but with the economy, it’s been a little more difficult. We’re trying our best to give out as much as we can, but this year we’re keeping it to a major toy, a minor toy, and a stocking stuffer. We’re also giving out movie passes to the [kids] fourteen plus.
It’s been hard, but at the same time, it would be very wrong for me to say that people haven’t been more generous—everything they give has been used for the community. People have also been very generous with their time. Some people have been here for eight-hour-plus days, nonstop.

Dorothy Cornish, Volunteer

Torontoist: How long have you been volunteering here?
Cornish: Fifteen years.
Have you seen any changes over the years?
The population that’s coming this year has increased drastically, and we’re really down on toys, and even the food is down compared to what we used to give. Even ten years ago, there would have been lots of food and lots of toys, but then we had the fire at the Railside [Avenue Warehouse] last year, and the things that didn’t get burnt—which wasn’t many—were all water damaged, and that was our stock for this year. So we didn’t have a real good start.
What do you enjoy most about this kind of work?
The motivation for me is that I know it’s going to help the people that need it.

Joanne Park, Seasonal Worker

Joanne Park, loading the toys into the truck.

Torontoist: How did you get involved with the toy drive?
Park: I’m hired just for the Christmas season. I attend the church, and I’m the wife of the youth pastor. I heard about the position and got very interested—it sounded like a whole lot of fun, helping people and giving out toys.

Jeffrey Cameron, Community and Family Services Worker

Torontoist: How many people does the food drive typically help?
Cameron: So far, we’ve helped between three hundred and four hundred [people]. Now we’re going to have another three big days of registration. We hope to not have to go past this week, at this time. And then next week we really want to make it on an emergency basis—individuals who are in that time of crisis.
How does the registration process work?
Typically, just about everybody has to register. That being said, if a family comes here and they have just gone through some sort of tragedy, like a house fire or and unexpected death in the household, and they’re just not able to financially make it, then we can probably do a quick registration with them. For general registration, we ask them to bring in some ID for everyone in the household, so we know who’s staying there.
Regarding ID, one of the problems is if they’re a newcomer, they don’t always have the ID that we’re used to having. So when it comes to ID, I try to accept as much as I can. But we do need ID.
On top of ID, we also ask for proof of income—if they’re on disability, Ontario Works, or welfare. If they’re employed, we just ask them to bring in a pay stub, to show what they get on average. We try to work out as best we can what their general monthly income is.
What happens if someone isn’t able to provide the proper ID?
It’s a play-it-by-ear situation, but I try to be as lenient as I can. One of the sad realities is that a lot of individuals, especially newcomers at this time of year, are not necessarily working in a legitimate job—it’s more under the table, and it’s for cash…Sometimes their employer is still willing to write them a little letter stating how much they’re getting paid. If they’re not, we do what we can, but I don’t make any promises to anyone that comes in.
We have to be realistic, because sometimes we do have individuals who try to come in here, when they really have much more at the end of the month than the average person we help. Some [people] are essentially looking for a free gift.
What do you enjoy most about doing this job?
There’s so much to enjoy about doing this. There are times where it can be tough or you have to be tough. But on the same token, when you hand a bag of toys to a household or to a family that would just not be having a happy holidays at this time of year, and to see their response, and to hear that person say: “Thank you so much” or “You made my kid’s Christmas.” To get that response is just joyful feedback. That’s really what carries me through.

Gordon Tull, Retired Construction Worker

Torontoist: How has the Salvation Army helped you?
Tull: I retired four years ago, at sixty, from heavy construction work. The food bank here helps me quite a bit; I really appreciate what they’re doing.
Photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.