From needing help to giving it, Ray of Hope volunteer Mike Day helps prep 200 meals each night

Mike Day injured his foot doing construction work, which led to him requiring social assistance. With little money for food, he turned to Ray of Hope for a hot meal and ended up becoming a volunteer in the kitchen.

'I’ve been helping out a lot more than what they want me to,' Day jokes

Mike Day cuts up blade steaks for a meal at Ray of Hope in downtown Kitchener. Day has been volunteering in the kitchen for more than six years after first going to the centre for a hot meal. (Kate Bueckert/CBC KW)

As Mike Day recovered from a foot injury, he had very little in his fridge.

"I had nothing, probably just a small bag of potatoes and that was it," he recalled as he stood in the kitchen at Ray of Hope.

It had been a bad time. He had hurt himself doing construction work. A minor blister worsened. He was on crutches and was hooked up to an intravenous drip to help him fight off infection. A nurse had to come by to change the bandages on his foot.

"I couldn't really go too far on crutches," Day said, adding he couldn't even walk his dogs.

He was on social assistance, but the money didn't go far enough.

And so, one day, he walked into Ray of Hope in downtown Kitchener hoping to get a hot meal.

Not long after that first day, he asked if he could help in the kitchen.

"I asked if I could volunteer and help out and he said, 'Sure, what can you do?' And I told him exactly what I can do and he said, 'OK, we'll give you a tryout and if you work out, then we'll still have you,'" he said.

That was more than six years ago, and he continues to help serve a meal to others coming into the centre.

"I enjoy it," Day said. "I enjoy the people, the atmosphere, everyone gets along great at times. There's some misfits you've got to help them break it up, and then they're good as gold again. I enjoy the atmosphere around here."

Feeling a sense of belonging

 
Skids of food await volunteers who will pack hampers for families and individuals in need in Waterloo region. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

Day is part of a group of people called Wise Guys, who prepare a hot meal every night of the year. Each night, 220 people walk through the doors for dinner, said Jon Hill, program director for Ray of Hope.

While learning how to prepare food is a great skill, Hill said even more important is learning to be part of a team.

"I think what most of our guests that get involved in the groups – and I've promoted the groups, I'd like to see all our guests in some group somewhere - because it's that belonging to a group, it's that teamwork, working in a team, and you're much better together," he said.

The groups help people build better relationships, Hill said. People have a feeling of, "I belong and I have relationships built now with these people," he said.

Wendi Campbell, executive director of The Food Bank of Waterloo Region, said partnerships like the one they have with Ray of Hope helps get food to people who need it, and then the programs there offer those people additional help.

"Sometimes the food is just a way to get people into the door, a place where they feel safe, where they feel welcomed," she said.

Restaurant-style meal

Food waiting to be sorted at a food bank. Through partnerships with groups like Ray of Hope, the Food Bank of Waterloo Region is able to help groups like Ray of Hope. (CBC)

Once a month, chef Darryl Fletcher – known as Chef D – helps prepare a restaurant-style meal for those who attend Ray of Hope.

"I wanted to do it as a chef and as if we're in a restaurant," he said, adding with the help of great sponsors, they've been able to bring in good cuts of meat and fresh fruits and vegetables to use.

The meal is often followed by a homemade dessert.

Chef D said he enjoys working with the people at Ray of Hope – and those in the kitchen cheered when asked how they feel about working with Chef D – but he added it has also brought him some perspective on how others in this community survive each day.

"It's also humbled me a whole lot to see people and different situations," he said.

'Beautiful display of how community works together'

The Wise Guys program has evolved from humble beginnings of trying to reach out to community to now having a beautiful facility that has lots of support by community to make it safe, clean and accessible to everyone, Campbell said.

"It's just a really beautiful display of how community works together to support our neighbours," she said.

We start to hear stories like Mike's and we understand there's reasons why people are in need and why they, for various reasons, can't get back on their feet.- Wendi Campbell, executive director of The Food Bank of Waterloo Region

"It is such an important story to tell. I think there's a lot of people who still have some concerns about who are accessing services in our community," she said.

"There's a lot of myths out there about who is accessing our services, why they're accessing community meal programs, but when we start to hear stories like Mike's and we understand there's reasons why people are in need and why they, for various reasons, can't get back on their feet," said Campbell.  

"By giving back, volunteers are contributing to the agencies that are supporting them in a really different way and being able to help the next person who is struggling, who's not engaged, who's not connected to community." 

'Don't look back'

Once a month, Chef D, right, comes in to help volunteers prepare a restaurant-style meal for those who attend Ray of Hope for a hot meal. Mike Day, left, helps with the prep work and says he loves giving back. (Kate Bueckert/CBC News)

Day admits he has not had an easy life.

But despite everything he's endured, he remains positive - so much so, it's almost infectious. As he works alongside other people in the kitchen, he makes them smile and laugh and soon, the whole work area is abuzz with friendly chatter.

His foot is better, and he regularly walks his ex-girlfriend's dogs for her. He still has carpal tunnel, and he does not have a job, but he remains a near-permanent fixture in the kitchen at Ray of Hope.

"I've been helping out a lot more than what they want me to do," Day said with a smile.

On this particular day, they are making blade steaks for the main course and apple pie for dessert.

Some people have asked him why he volunteers, but Day said he has always been the kind of person who wants to help out and give back.

"I've always done the right thing. I've never done the wrong thing at all," he said. "I don't look back from what I've done previously. I always look forward towards the future."

Listen to his story: