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Gastown fire victims finding hope in UGM annual Easter meal

Click to play video: 'Easter meals for those in need'
Easter meals for those in need
The Union Gospel Mission is preparing for its annual Easter brunch. Nicole Mucci of UGM discusses the importance of sharing a meal with those in need. – Apr 15, 2022

People displaced by a devastating fire in Vancouver’s Gastown were among those partaking in the Union Gospel Mission’s annual Easter meal on Saturday.

“This is amazing. This is the only place I get to eat. I ate here yesterday, and that was the last time that I ate,” Doug McInnes, a survivor of the fire that destroyed the Winters Hotel and forced the evacuation of the adjacent Gastown hotel on Monday.

“This means everything to me. If it wasn’t for these guys I don’t know what I would do.”

UGM staff and volunteers plated more than 2,400 meals this year, once again in a to-go format. The mission said it hoped with COVID-19 restrictions lifting it would be the last of their holiday meals served out the door, and not in a dining space.

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“The fire is just one example of the many difficulties our community members are facing on a daily basis,” UGM spokesperson Nicole Mucci said, citing COVID-19, B.C.’s deadly drug crisis and now the rising cost of living.

“We need to have meals like today in order to come together and have a little bit of hope, to know that inflation doesn’t mean they’ll have to go without, that a fire doesn’t mean they will have to go without, that losing a loved one, there is space to grieve, there is community to care,” she said.

Click to play video: 'Union Gospel Mission’s coronavirus pandemic plan'
Union Gospel Mission’s coronavirus pandemic plan

While many may see the holiday service as a simple plate of ham, potatoes and vegetables, Mucci said every meal they serve is actually a chance for human connection. Those relationships help build hope and self worth, she said, but also open the door to shelter, recovery or other services.

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Among those helping serve this year’s Easter meal was Laura Harvey, a former client of UGM. She said the value of those connections can’t be understated.

“Everybody deserves to come from darkness into the light. I feel like that’s a story for me also, that I did the same,” she said.

Harvey said she turned to drugs and alcohol at an early age, amid “lots of relationships with violence and abuse.” After losing custody of her son, she moved to Fort McMurray looking to make money.

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“I thought that was going to be a solution and it ended up nearly killing me,” she said, explaining that the path led her to high-risk survival sex work.

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“I spent five years in a tent city in the woods of Fort McMurray. I struggled every day for survival.”

She said things changed after a conversation with someone who convinced her recovery was possible. That led her back to Vancouver where she participated in UGM’s Lydia House program for women with addiction.”

“People don’t realize that I didn’t wake up and say I want to be homeless and an addict. I had dreams and I had goals, and addiction stole that from me. It’s trauma,” she said.

“Once you deal with those roots of pain and hurt, you can finally get away from the drugs and be able to start your journey of healing.”

In all, Harvey and others on site served up more than 1,300 pounds of ham, 425 pounds of scalloped potatoes, 400 pounds of vegetables and 400 pies.

As for McInnes, he’s hoping to find a place to live in the neighbourhood before the month is out.

“I’m waiting for the dark cloud to go over my head and go away,” he said.

“When I get my life back to normal I want to volunteer here and pay them back.”

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