Ottawa Mission family gathers for annual Christmas feast

About 130 volunteers were on hand at Sunday’s annual Christmas dinner at the Ottawa Mission, helping to serve more than 2,000 meals throughout the afternoon.

Downtown shelter serves up 2,246 meals, thanks to 130 volunteers

Joy Bergeron, left, shares a meal with her friend Jacques Demers at this year's edition of the Ottawa Mission's annual Christmas dinner. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

To Joy Bergeron, this year's Christmas dinner at the Ottawa Mission was a bittersweet reminder of what's too often taken for granted.

"I've had a rough year. I've lost my brother, my dad and my mom, so I don't have much of a family left," she said. "In a way, this is my family dinner."

Throughout Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people like Bergeron took their seat at tables with white linen tablecloths, while volunteers dished out plates of turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans and dessert.

For many, it was an opportunity to spend time with old friends and enjoy a delicious meal. For Bergeron, it was a way to get through the holidays without her family.

"I go to pick up the phone to call my parents and they're not there," she said. "But at least I see some familiar faces. I'm happy to see them."

'You leave here, you always feel good'

About 130 volunteers were on hand at Sunday's dinner, helping to serve 2,246 meals throughout the afternoon, according to the Ottawa Mission.

John Batson has been volunteering with the shelter for 10 years.

"You leave here, you always feel good," Batson said from the kitchen assembly line, working alongside half a dozen other volunteers.

"Christmas doesn't start till I'm done with the Mission," he said. "It really restores your faith in humanity when you work at a place like this."

Laurie and Shaun Alton have volunteered at the Ottawa Mission's annual Christmas dinner for the past six years. They say they can't think of a better way to give back to their community. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

To Shaun Alton, it's a reminder that anyone could unexpectedly find themselves in a time of crisis.

For the past six years, he and his wife Laurie have driven down from Petawawa to lend a helping hand.

"It's a heartbreaker to see a family come in here for a meal," Alton said. "It's also warming and good to know that at least that family got a good quality meal — at least for today, anyway."

High demand for services after cold snap

The shelter's executive director, Peter Tilley, said it's been years since the mission has seen such high demand for its services.

Since October, staff has been laying down mats on the mission's chapel room floor — something that would normally happen only in the colder months of January and February.

"Nobody's going to freeze in this city if we can help it," he said. "But it's a challenge when you're trying to have that many people come in."

Peter Tilley, executive director of the Ottawa Mission, says he's touched every year by the gratitude of people who attend the shelter's annual Christmas dinner. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

After the weekend's cold snap, Tilley said he hopes to receive more donations of good quality winter clothing, so his team can continue serving the people who come through its doors.

"We'll serve another 1,300 meals tomorrow once this dinner is done," Tilley said. "It doesn't end after Christmas for the Ottawa Mission."