Drayton Valley community dinners set the table for hope
'It's real bad. There's nothing going on; everything's quiet and people are losing their houses and jobs'
Taking the Pulse is a series from CBC News examining how Albertans are coping with today's economic conditions.
On the third Tuesday of every month, residents of Drayton Valley, Alta., gather at their local Royal Canadian Legion for a community dinner.
It's a bright spot in a town where many people and businesses rely on the oil and gas sector for their livelihoods.
Scattered For Sale signs in front of houses in Drayton Valley paint a picture of today's reality for the town of 7,000.
"The community is hurting right now," said Lola Strand, a community dinner co-ordinator who works for Family and Community Support Services.
Organizers want to provide an opportunity for community members to share a meal and connect with one another during this stressful time, Strand said.
The monthly community dinners began in January 2017, when about 80 people came out. Since then, attendance has grown to more than 300 people.
The dinners are hosted by local businesses who sponsor the meal and provide staff to prepare the food and serve community members.
Everyone is welcome
Participants range from seniors who use the dinners as an opportunity to reconnect with friends, to people without homes who appreciate a warm, cooked meal, to families with young children.
"There's one mom who comes with her kids almost every month," Strand said.
"This is the only night out that she can afford because she's a single parent."
One memory that stands out for Strand is when a struggling community member who had been busking around town came to a dinner last year with his guitar.
Strand asked if he'd be willing to play some Christmas carols.
"Folks gathered around with their kids and everybody started Christmas carolling," Strand said.
That's Strand's favourite part of the dinners — everyone is welcome and equal when they walk through the Legion's doors.
It gives the support people need to know they're not alone.- Pat Jeffrey, community dinner organizer
Pat Jeffrey, another organizer, said they intentionally set the tables so people sit across from each other and get to know one another.
When Jeffrey walks around town, she'll often pass people on the street she recognizes from the community dinner and they'll say hello.
That's how she knows their efforts to build up the community are working.
"It gives the support people need to know they're not alone," Jeffrey said. "It promotes resilience."
Garry Nelson is the owner of Nelson Brothers Oilfield Services in Drayton Valley, a trucking and rental equipment company that has operated in the town for 42 years. He is a regular at the dinners.
The current downturn in the economy is the worst he's ever seen, he said.
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"It's real bad. There's nothing going on; everything's quiet and people are losing their houses and jobs," Nelson said.
Nelson's business isn't making any profit, which is particularly difficult because his whole family is involved in the company.
"We're trying to keep our employees, but it's getting harder and harder."
No end in sight
The economy has not been kind to Nelson, but he continues to support the community dinners.
His business has hosted two of them, and is set to host a third in October 2019. Even when Nelson isn't hosting, he's usually there, ready to jump in and wash pans or take over cooking duties.
"I just love this community. I've been here my whole life," Nelson said.
The community dinners have grown so much, they will be moving next month to the MacKenzie Conference Centre.
Community dinners are scheduled through 2019 and with the new venue, there will be room for everyone in town who wants to come, Strand said.
"We want to be a place where people can stay as long as they like."