Church group's cardboard sign campaign proves 'contagious'

A church group in the Sudbury region wants to change the conversation about homelessness.
The pastor at Trinity United, Kathy Dahmer (right), wrote a poignant message down on a piece of cardboard and asked members of the church to take it downtown to see what happened. Congregation member Barb Cote (left) did just that. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

A church group in the Sudbury region wants to change the conversation about homelessness.

Two women from Lively's Trinity United Church stand outside the Salvation Army in downtown Sudbury, holding a cardboard sign.

On it, they've hastily written a few words in permanent marker — but the message is different than what you'd expect.

Barb Cote reads the sign:

"It says: I have a job, I have a home, I have a car. I have good health. Would you like money for coffee?"

This is the third time Cote has been out on the street holding the sign and giving out toonies for coffee. And it's causing a crowd to swell outside the Salvation Army. And their pleasure is audible.

"People said there's somebody out here giving money. No! Really? Coffee money? Thank you."

"You guys are doing it different!"

"I would love money for a coffee. Thank you."

Wondering aloud

Cote's mission germinated weeks earlier, when Trinity United Church minister Kathy Dahmer planned a sermon about the abundances of life.

She stumbled across a picture online of a similar sign from the United Kingdom.
Members of the congregation of Trinity United Church in Lively displayed a cardboard sign in downtown Sudbury offering toonies for coffee. The movement inspired others to donate their time or money to the cause. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

The sign in the photo listed off all the things that person had, and offered a few dollars to anyone who needed it.

"I ran downstairs and grabbed a piece of cardboard and a marker and I wrote one up for us," Dahmer recalled.

"And [I] was just going to use it like a prop."

But while she was preaching, Dahmer began to wonder out loud.

"I wonder what would happen if we took $20 worth of toonies and went downtown. I wonder what people would think, and I wonder how that would feel.  And I wonder if it would be hard not for the people who don't have, but the people who do have."

Countless stories

Pam Brown stood up in church to volunteer. But before she even got downtown, Brown was being challenged — not for asking for money, but for offering it.

"I needed to get some change. So in Lively I went through the drive-through at Tim Hortons. When I was at the drive-through window I asked for toonies in change for my $20," Brown said.

People avoid looking at your sign.- Pam Brown

"And the woman, just being friendly, asked, 'Oh? Are you doing your laundry today?' And I said, 'actually no. I'm going downtown. And if someone might need a coffee or whatever, I'm going to give them a toonie.'"

Brown said the woman gave her a concerned face and "a wiggle of a finger," and told her to be wary of "scammers."

"I had the sign in the front seat of the car, and I held it up to her and said, 'this is why I'm going.'"

After the woman read the sign, "her facial expression changed."

Brown said going downtown with the sign was about more than just the offer of a coffee to brighten someone's day.
While handing out coins she's also heard countless stories of people's struggles with homelessness, from the shame they felt to the circumstances that brought them there.

"Putting that toonie in the palm of someone's hand ... was just so insignificant compared to the conversation and the real connection that I had with people."
Pam Brown (left) and Barb Cote (right) share a laugh with a man who took part in a recent "birthday party for the homeless," which was held in downtown Sudbury. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Barb Cote said the sign is a message to those people who have become accustomed to turning away from those in need. It also gave her a firsthand experience of how homeless people feel when they're asking for help.

"People avoid looking at your sign. And we were with a child ... It was Kathy's daughter. And when she was holding the sign, people looked disgusted. Because they saw the sign, but they refused to read it. So they were mad at us for having Kate hold the sign," she said.

'I'd really like to be a part of this'

While many turned away, there were many who reacted positively, including one particular man.

"He walked by us, and didn't look at us," Cote recalled.

"Then he walked back the other way. And he caught the first two lines. And he stopped and he turned around, and goes, 'what does this mean?' And we told him, 'we're giving out money for a coffee. Would you like one?'"

The man told Cote, "no, I've got money. But you know what, I'd really like to be part of this."

He gave $20 to their cause.

When Cote couldn't make change for the $20 "because no place would give us toonies," the man offered to make change at the bank for them.

When he returned, he said: "I didn't think $20 was enough. And he gave us a $100 in toonies." 

Dahmer said it's people like that man who are making their philanthropic venture worthwhile. She said the significance of the sign has had a ripple effect in her church and in the city.

There's now a list of people waiting to take the sign downtown and hold it up.

"All it takes it one person to acknowledge that someone's really there, and then it becomes contagious."

A cupcake with a message

On Sunday, Lively’s Trinity United Church also held a barbecue in downtown Sudbury for homeless people — people who may not have had a birthday party held in their honour for years.

Kristin Gibeault helped to bake more than 300 cupcakes for the event.

Trinity United Church recently held a barbecue in downtown Sudbury for homeless people in the city who may not have had a birthday party held in their honour. (Marina von Stackelberg)

“I have a son that just turned one. And his birthday, unfortunately, just ballooned out of control,” she said.

“And I sat there that Sunday and I thought, ‘what would it be [like] for a child to not even have a cupcake with a candle in it, saying happy birthday, do you want to make a wish?’”

Gibeault said the idea for the party came from a homeless man, who said people in his position feel isolated.

More than 150 people attended the birthday celebrations that were inspired by the same sermon that inspired congregation members to hand out toonies for coffee.


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