Reaping the benefits of strategic planning at St. Paul’s Social Services

By Lynn Prentice

A woman so isolated that even when she attends a drop-in centre she cannot accept having others sit with her, is slowly and lovingly brought out of her shell by simple greetings from staff and volunteers each time she comes. When a new program is launched to have those who attend make lunches together, she is one of the first to sign up.

A man brings prayer cards, books and pictures of saints to a priest who serves at a lunch program. When the priest tries to explain to the man that he need not do this, that the priest is happy to help at the program, the man answers, “You spend your time taking care of others, but who takes care of you?”

These are the kinds of relationships that build at St. Paul’s Social Services at the cathedral, where not only the stomach but also the soul is filled.

That hasn’t come about by accident.

A volunteer from St. Paul’s Cathedral Social Services harvests produce from its community garden, hosted at St. Andrew Memorial, London.

A volunteer from St. Paul’s Cathedral Social Services harvests produce from its community garden, hosted at St. Andrew Memorial, London.

For more than 35 years, St. Paul’s Social Services has been supporting people who live in poverty in the London area. In addition to three staff positions, we are supported almost entirely by donations and volunteers.

Building on those decades of care and compassion, St. Paul’s Social Services has been undergoing significant change in the past two years. These changes are based on an eight-month strategic planning process that was completed in March 2014.

While maintaining our commitment to food security by continuing to provide food at the Daily Bread Food Bank and lunch at the Fellowship Centre, we now also have a focus on providing healthy food and community.

This new focus has resulted in several new initiatives and many changes related to the kind of food we offer.

Beginning in the fall of 2013, Daily Bread began offering fresh produce every day. Much of this is donated by market vendors, individuals, churches, and organizations. We purchase potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, and apples when needed to supplement these donations.

We also fill baskets with seasonal produce from our community garden, which is tended by volunteers. Recipients of this produce are grateful to have fresh food to take home. As one person put it, “Just because we’re poor doesn’t mean we don’t want healthy food.”

The Fellowship Centre still offers a drop-in lunch on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, prepared largely by volunteer teams. They are committed to following Canada’s Food Guide, so the offerings are both nutritious and delicious.

But now we’ve enhanced opportunities for connecting and building a sense of community. People who come for lunch can arrive anytime after 10:30 a.m. to sit and visit. Our volunteers, including a regular clerical presence, are out from behind the counter, serving food at the tables and engaging in conversation. Staff and volunteers regularly join people who come for lunch at their table.

If you come and visit, you’ll find a room of engaged conversation and lots of smiles. Our staff and many volunteers have done a wonderful job of making this a place of enhanced connectedness and community.

Beginning in May, 10 intensely trained volunteers began in their role of “compassionate presence”. They can be found on most days at St. Paul’s Social Services, actively listening or visiting with people who come for food. On occasion the compassionate presence volunteers also provide referrals to other community agencies.

Many of the people who come to the Fellowship Centre live isolated lives due to poverty and challenges they experience with their mental, physical or social health.

The new Breaking Bread Together program offers an opportunity for them to experience greater community as some of these lunch folks work with staff and volunteers preparing, eating, and cleaning up after a lunch together.

Although relatively new, this program, offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays, has already become a place to develop new friendships and a sense of belonging, as well as the more easily measured objective of increased cooking skills. The food these groups make is always healthy, too.

Beginning this fall, we will implement the last of the new initiatives outlined in our three-year strategic plan: an hour of programming for people who come to our services. Based on a model from Church of the Redeemer in Toronto, we plan to offer Talk and Pray late this fall and Book/Movie Club in 2016. A variety of one-hour programs will be offered in the future, as we learn and grow together.

Some people use our programs occasionally. Others use them temporarily during a period of transition. Still others use our services, particularly the Fellowship Centre lunch, on a regular basis. We are responding to people’s need with healthy food and an opportunity for community.

We believe that creating opportunities for caring and meaningful conversation has the potential to increase feelings of worthiness and connectedness and build a sense of hope for the future, all essential elements for a life that wants to flourish.

To find out more about our programs and services or the many ways you can support us, including volunteering, please visit our website at

Lynn Prentice is executive director of St. Paul’s Cathedral Social Services.