Ensuring that the most vulnerable people in our community feel cared for is the driving force behind R.O.C.K. (Reach Out Chatham-Kent) Missions, and the message on every lunch bag the volunteers give out to the homeless is heartfelt.
“You Matter” is the message Al and Candy McGuigan, along with co-founder Jeff Parker, try to get across to each new friend they meet in the community with no food, shelter and in some cases, means of support.
Since last May, the people behind R.O.C.K. Missions have been reaching out to the homeless men, women and children where they are – along the river bank, under bridges, by the old glue factory, on the streets, in motels – to feed them, provide warm clothing and try to connect them with services they may need.
Al McGuigan, who acts as executive director for the group, said he saw a need for the homeless who have social anxiety or other trust issues that keep them from area soup kitchens or community dinners.
“I started to volunteer at Hope Haven, back in May of last year. Working there, I saw some gaps in the system because there were people being missed – families, women, and also just getting people connected to resources that are available in the community,” McGuigan said of his group’s beginning. “They were providing a place to sleep and a place to eat, but that was the extent of it, so my wife, Candy, decided she was going to reach out to some people in Chatham that weren’t being captured in that group, so she started walking King Street with Jeff Parker and giving out lunches.”
McGuigan said they started out with 14 lunches and are now up to 80 lunches they give out twice a week on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The big goal, he noted, was to get people off the streets and into a home.
“We realized we had to start out smaller and work through and build an organization. So, we started out with outreach first, and provide a handmade lunch; soup and sandwich in the winter and just a sandwich or hotdog in the summer. We also provide clothing – coats, boots, hats, shirts, hoodies – and we also provide hygiene products and basic needs, along with some basic medical like bandages, aspirin and Polysporin,” he noted.
According to the group’s vision statement, “ROCK Missions believes in a ‘whole-person’ approach to making a difference in the lives of others. We will provide a street-level program to ensure that our most vulnerable receive basic needs first. We will build bridges that bring Mental Wellness & Addiction programs to the people, supporting those from street to home.”
The Missions group also follows harm reduction guidelines as some of the people they bring food to are addicts.
“We’re not there to stop someone or judge them for their addiction, we’re there to hopefully prevent any further harm by handing out NARCAN kits and preventing blood transmitted diseases by collecting needles,” McGuigan added. “The purpose behind collecting the used needles is to prevent people from reusing them.”
The types of people they encounter on the street, McGuigan said, have dealt with issues like childhood trauma or some sort of trauma in their life and are dealing with mental illness and post traumatic stress.
“Child abuse, abuse in foster homes – we’ve heard all those stories. Alcoholic parents, no parents, no family structure. That a good chunk of the group we’re dealing with or have seen. They’re not out there because they want to be, they’re out there because they have a mental illness; I’m going to guess that’s about 75 per cent and that might be a low number,” McGuigan said.
The age range the Missions group sees goes from as young as 14 years of age to 75. For many, Missions volunteer Renee Geniole said, the hoops you have to jump through to get help with no support structure makes them give up, and they find their family in the homeless people they connect with. The majority age is between 17-25 years.
In the beginning, the McGuigans and Parker formed a small group and made a connection with the United Way who let them use their certified kitchen and training rooms at no cost.
“We now have an office we lease from them, and we have a five-member board with nominations coming up this February. We’re not yet structured as a non-profit but we are applying for non-profit status and this August, we can apply for our charity status. We have a lawyer who is doing that for us pro bono,” McGuigan said.
He said they have been connecting with different organizations in the community, like the health unit, Chatham-Kent Mental Health, Chatham-Kent Police Service, Access Open Minds and the Salvation Army to help connect people to the resources they need.
“A lot of people we serve, they have social anxiety, they don’t actually go into the soup kitchens or the service organizations. They don’t trust the hospital because they may have had a bad experience there so we help get them there,” he noted. “We actually have a really good relationship now with the (CKHA) emergency room. We just go in and mention we are R.O.C.K. Missions and they help us out.”
Once the organization gets all its paperwork in order, McGuigan said the plan is to expand out into all of Chatham-Kent, either forming relationships with smaller groups that are already out there or expanding the Missions into the community.
The next goal is to get a winter warmth program going, which will require insurance and making relationships with area churches McGuigan noted.
Geniole said even when the weather isn’t that cold, people without proper clothing and shelter can still be in physical danger from the temperature.
“We’ve already had one of our friends who was suffering frostbite on her feet, and we had to intervene and got her to the hospital and they managed to save her toe, and that wasn’t even during minus temperatures,” Geniole said.
The big dream, of course, for the Missions group is to have a shelter like the one in Windsor – Downtown Missions – that not only provides a warm bed and food, but addiction programs, a return to work program, as well as transitional housing.
“That’s a big task, but my dream is to buy the St. Joseph’s School; it’s in a great spot. The problem with a big project like that is getting buy-in from municipal council and area business people,” McGuigan said.
He does have support from some members of council for that dream, but said the municipality has until February to decide if they want to buy the building or it will pass on to a public auction.
McGuigan said the institutional architecture of the school makes it durable, but getting a zoning change and dealing with possible asbestos would be an issue. Worry that downtown merchants wouldn’t want a shelter close by is another issue that McGuigan said could be solved by having daytime programs and activities in the old school gym, keeping people off the streets and giving them social and recreation activities.
“That’s my dream but I don’t know if it will ever happen,” he noted.
Right now, Geniole said the main focus is “creating a bridge and helping friends who can’t seem to take those steps to get to the organizations who can help. If we can give them a hand to get from point A to point B instead of waiting for them to come; I think that was one of the first things that attracted me to this organization.”
“The simple idea that if they’re not going there themselves, what’s stopping them? What can we do to get to them and say, ‘How can we get you there? What do you need from us? Do you need us to walk you there?’’ Geniole added.
The reaction from people they reach out to has been incredible McGuigan said.
“They love to see us, and the word is getting around. And as the word gets around, that’s really how we built and found the people we found through connections and relationships and referrals. So we are going to more places and as our name gets around, it just keeps moving forward,” he noted.
To offer help, clothes, food or to volunteer, people can go to rockmissions.com, Facebook at Reach Out CK or email email@example.com. A list of items needed can be found on the website or Facebook page.