Lunch By George is back on the menu
October 14, 2023
Closed to in-person service since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, Kingston’s oldest lunch drop-in program quietly reopened its doors this month and served up a feast of Thanksgiving this week.
Savoula Stylianou, a member of Lunch by George’s board of directors, was beaming as she greeted guests at the doors of the beautiful St. George’s Hall at 129 Wellington Street in Kingston. The tall stained glass windows and dark woodwork provided an elegant backdrop for the assembled diners and bustling volunteers working to provide a turkey dinner with all the trimmings.
Doug Carroll and Sarah Den Ouden were among the 30 people enjoying the company and the delicious in-person lunch that day.
“I am very thankful for all the years Lunch by George fed and clothed me while I struggled,” Den Ouden said. “I am also very grateful for them opening back up for in-person dining, especially as the weather gets colder.”
According to the Lunch by George website, many of the patrons have some form of physical or mental disability which prevents them from working; a few are elderly and in difficult circumstances. Many have been coming for a number of years, and Lunch by George is their social centre, where they know each other and care for each other.
A survey done several years ago showed that most clients were on disability pension or welfare assistance, with rents consuming 30 to 50 per cent of their incomes, the organization shared. Many have no cooking facilities --- maybe just a hotplate --- and limited opportunity to cook in a functional kitchen. Other patrons are only temporary: they are those who are employable but are having difficulty finding work. The website points out that they use the services until their status improves or they move to another community with better employment prospects.
“When the pandemic started in March of 2020, we closed our doors officially with the hope that this would pass and we would open again the following week," Stylianou said.
"We really didn't know this was permanent and the pandemic was sticking around for a while… We have tried over the past three years three separate times to reopen when the pandemic has been slowed, and there have been glimmers of hope where we thought, ‘Okay, now's the chance: we'll reopen.'"
Now, it finally has.
Stylianou said that clients have continued to use the takeout service, but they have expressed a longing to return to in-person dining: “They’ve missed not only the camaraderie and the fellowship with people who come there, but with our volunteers as well, and with our staff. Connections form. “
Den Ouden said she has “many good memories of just hanging out, socializing with friends over coffee while lunch was being made.
"This is the first time I have been in the building since the pandemic began. Being able to sit inside again is a big deal for many people," she expressed.
"They are such a wonderful organization, helping not only with food insecurity but also with clothing, footwear, outerwear, friendship, books, and pet food. It was so nice to see everyone after such a long time.”
Since what she called a “soft launch” the Thursday and Friday before the Thanksgiving weekend, Stylianou said, “We've had pretty good numbers. We’ve served about 20 meals in person a day. But our takeout window is still proving popular for various reasons: sometimes people can't fit their wheelchairs in the elevator, sometimes there are animals that aren't allowed in, et cetera, et cetera. So our takeout window does still prove to be popular.”
“We were able to serve, in our Thanksgiving lunch, a total of 90 meals from the takeout window, and about 30 people in and out in-person over the two hours who were there for coffee, a meal, and dessert,” she added.
The charity is meticulously following all of KFL&A Public Health’s guidelines in order to keep Lunch by George open, Stylianou emphasized, saying, “We have several retired nurses and active nurses who sit on the board, and we get advice from those who are in the know about best practices. In our hall, we have air purifiers that were donated to us, [and] we have masks available, hand sanitizer, et cetera. So we certainly hope to remain open from this point on, but we'll do whatever we need to do to preserve the health and wellness of our clients.”
Stylianou said that the organization is always seeking extra volunteer help and financial support. They lost quite a few volunteers over the pandemic, and they always welcome new faces.
“Financial support is amazing. We are funded, largely and importantly, by the United Way of KFL&A, and we are a proud partner of the United Way. We are so grateful for their support," she said.
"We are based out of St George's Cathedral, but we are a secular and independent organization, and that's the way we are able to be funded by the United Way. We're extremely grateful for their financial support, and their physical support, as well.”
“Not only are we looking for volunteers,” Stylianou continued, “we are always looking for donations. I would say right now the focus would be on financial donations and not necessarily on clothing donations --- the reason being that we find our clients have very specific needs... We often require clothes that are not popular items to donate: men's pants and men's shirts, men's undershirts and underwear, things like that… We would be very happy with financial donations so that we can go out and buy the things we see the most need for.”
There are also openings on the Lunch By George board of directors, she said: “You do not need to be a volunteer or a member of the church or anyone in particular. We're always open to having members who are interested in serving our clients and working to accomplish our goal of assisting the people in need in Kingston, however we can.”
“We're happy to fill the need in Kingston, although we're obviously unhappy that there is a need at all,” Stylianou concluded, “In an ideal world, we would be out of business because there would be no need for agencies like ours. However, as long as there is a need, we're very, very happy to be contributing to not only the physical needs of our clients, but hopefully the mental and well-being needs, as well.”
Pre-COVID, Lunch by George served about 100 people daily and over 120 at its Christmas meal. The program operates five days a week, opening at 9 a.m. with coffee and snacks, and serving soup at 10 a.m. and a hot nutritious lunch at 11 a.m. Normally, the dishes are done and the kitchen is cleaned up before noon, which leaves the hall available for other groups in the afternoon.
To find out more about Lunch by George, visit them online on their website and on Facebook.