Matthew 13:31-32, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field: it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
For almost 30 years now, The Mustard Seed has been steadily working in downtown Edmonton to help homeless and low-income families in a variety of ways. Christ-centered and open-minded, The Mustard Seed provides basic services such as an evening meal program (Monday through Saturday) for its core community, as well as a food depot with free hampers. There is also a Personal Assistance Centre which offers small household goods, personal hygiene items, and clothing, all free of charge. In addition to these services, the Mustard Seed offers Community Support Services which include an Employment Readiness Program and a Life Skills Education Program. Finally, the Mustard Seed owns and operates a 20-unit affordable housing initiative called Westwood Manor. It is home to “chronically homeless” men and women and provides 24/7 access to on-site housing support workers.
The Mustard Seed is an essential organization within its community, just as any organization is that provides basics such as food and clothing (and, in this case, a certain amount of housing) to the most vulnerable. And, like any other not-for-profit organization, The Mustard Seed relies heavily on volunteers in order to fulfill its mandate. Looking at the list of services it offers, one realizes that, if it were a regular for-profit business, it would require a fairly substantial staff. And this substantial staff would require salaries. The Mustard Seed is able to function in part because of donations it receives in addition to different forms of funding, but if it were to pay salaries to an administrative structure from this financial base, it would have nothing left to provide the actual services its community relies upon. Volunteers, then, are a critical part of its functioning, and without them, The Mustard Seed could not exist.
Paul Thorne, the Volunteer Coordinator at The Mustard Seed, recounts that there have indeed been instances where they have had to close their doors for lack of volunteers. “For many people, this (closing of doors) is a really big thing, it is more than just an inconvenience. The meal we serve them is the only meal they might get for the day, so they won’t eat (if we can’t open).” Keeping in mind that the Mustard Seed’s core community is not generally equipped with cell phones, there is no way of communicating to them beforehand of a closure, and so they make their way to the center at the normal time, not having the opportunity to find another place to go to. “There are other agencies,” says Paul, “but they (the community members) have planned their day around The Mustard Seed, and are greatly affected. On average, there are 300 people for a meal on any given day, but we could have up to 700 people passing through.” It is clear, then, that volunteering is an undertaking which contributes greatly and, in this case, immediately, to the people it helps.
At The Mustard Seed, there are various types of volunteers, some of them on a casual basis and some more long-term (long-term is defined as 4 hours/week for 4 months), with some having been there for 12 years. In general, there are about 24 volunteers per day, with 6 people in the Sorting Centre, 6 people in the Food Bank, and up to 12 people in the Church (not including meal volunteers). The greatest need for volunteers is in the sorting of donations, as well as the meal groups (the people who make the meals) as this latter part is not funded and is supported largely through donations and volunteering. Few of the volunteer positions at The Mustard Seed require any sort of specialized training, and most of what is involved can be learned while doing. Faith Companion Volunteers offer spiritual guidance and care, and have a mandate to communicate directly with the community, so the fulfillment of their positions is handled differently.
We are currently in the holiday season, and Anna Pokhrel, the Communications Coordinator at The Mustard Seed, explains the importance of volunteers to the community at this time: “As the weather gets colder and the demand for our services at Christmas increases, we rely even more on our volunteers to help us meet this need. We are so grateful to the men, women and families that come out to help us get through our busiest season of the year.”
The holidays can be a beautiful and yet complicated time of the year for many people, and The Mustard Seed recognizes this with their community. There is an increase in the events and social opportunities offered that go beyond the typical Christmas dinner, and these activities try to address the emotional and spiritual needs that emerge at this time. For example, the Spiritual Care Chaplain, Pastor Garrett, offers a weekly Christmas Chat in the month before Christmas that allows community members to get together and share how they feel. These chats are done in conjunction with Faith Companion Volunteers and are a valuable way for people to sort through any difficulties they might be experiencing. There is a day at Prairie Gardens offered for families with small children, including transportation, food, activities, a small gift, and time with Santa. Because The Mustard Seed strives to maintain the dignity of everyone who passes through their doors, there is even a family gift centre where those who need to can buy a new gift of their choosing for $2 (which includes wrapping) and enjoy the feeling of providing for their own children. And, of course, there are various holiday dinners including the annual Christmas feast on December 23. All of these events harness the beauty of the holidays, and, with the help of the volunteers, work to counteract any sense of dislocation or loneliness some people might feel at a time when family and connection is emphasized. At this time of the year, helping to create positive experiences and memories is a highly important endeavor, and volunteers get to play a key part in the process.
Truck Part Solutions and The Mustard Seed
Over the years, Truck Part Solutions has contributed to The Mustard Seed in the form of donations and, this year, we started a monthly baking group with all staff members encouraged to attend. The act of volunteering as a company has been a great gift to us, and our now-regular sessions in the kitchen of The Mustard Seed have turned into a time for us to interact in a different atmosphere, with a different goal. Because The Mustard Seed is a local charity, we know that our actions are having an effect almost immediately on people who live in our community. The idea of helping someone who could be a direct neighbor is also a humbling one because we are all reminded that no one is that far from needing help, and that falling into a difficult position can happen to anyone, at any time. The need for caring through community by way of volunteering is a constant one, and it is one that businesses as citizens need to acknowledge and address. We are proud of our association with The Mustard Seed, are amazed by the scope of their work, and look forward to continuing our active contribution to their mission for as long as possible.
The Mustard Seed
10568 114th Street
Edmonton AB T5H 3J7