They usually drive in from Niagara-on-the-Lake together, but this Thursday, Rick Meloen arrives first, having had to complete some errands before their usual shift.
He is greeted at the kitchen door by Niagara Falls Community Outreach Chair Chris Watling, who says, “here he is, the mayor of Niagara-on-the-Lake”.
Shortly after, Tony Chisholm and Rene Bertschi walk through the same door, don their aprons, and prepare for another busy evening working the dish pit at the nightly soup kitchen. The fourth member of the group, Rick Durand, sends his apologies, as the busy Christmas season took him away from the group’s weekly volunteer shift.
From Nov. 1 through to the end of April, the four retired NOTL residents volunteer here, assuming the dishwashing duties for the supper shift.
Watling oversees about 300 volunteers who help serve lunches year-round, and suppers seven days a week for six months of the year. More than 42,000 nutritious meals are served free of charge each year to those who need them. At a cost of about $3.50 per meal, the program has an annual budget of slightly more than $100,000. Watling says she can’t put a value on the work of the crew of men who make the drive from NOTL every week.
Meloen has been volunteering in the kitchen for almost 10 years, and slowly brought in the other three, Bertschi being the most recent addition to the dishwashing crew. Watling says she enjoys “tormenting” Meloen with the “mayor” nickname — she knows he’s not actually the mayor, but it seems she feels he has been representing the town with his involvement every week.
“We thought, wow, these guys are driving all the way up here to do dishes. They have a little socialization after, which is nice,” she says. But the “mayor” and his crowd handle the dishes and clean up, seeing it right through to the end, putting out the garbage every Thursday night, she adds.
“They’re committed to doing a wonderful job,” she says. “It’s important that whoever operates that dishwasher knows what they’re doing and takes good care of it, because if that goes down, it’s a major piece of equipment.”
Following his retirement from the public works department of the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Meloen quickly became involved as a volunteer in a number of initiatives. The 1812 bicentennial celebrations, Canada 150 Celebrations, and Heritage Trail Committee have all benefited from his volunteerism.
In fact, it was as members of the bicentennial committee where Meloen and Chisholm first realized how well they worked together. After a meeting one night, Meloen mentioned the soup kitchen, and Chisholm decided to come out and see what it was all about.
Chisholm, a retired publisher of trade magazines, jokingly adds that Meloen “couldn’t handle the job on his own, and needed somebody to pre-wash for him.” The back-and-forth ribbing of each other is obviously a huge factor in this regular Thursday evening outing.
He adds that he enjoys the fact that “it’s three or four of us coming up and working together. It’s a group effort, and we’ve been able to take over the kitchen, and do everything that needs to be done for at least this one night of the week.”
Like Meloen, Chisholm’s volunteer spirit reaches beyond the Community Outreach soup kitchen. He has been a president of The Friends of Fort George, the chair of both the Canada 150 Committee and the Tall Ships 150 event, and is a long-time member of the Communities in Bloom Committee, among other pursuits.
Bertschi has also been involved in many of the same volunteer organizations and committees. He joined the other three at the soup kitchen for the first time about three years ago. Bertschi, who retired to NOTL after a career in electronics in Germany, is quick to deflect any praise to those who keep the kitchen running all year.
“These people in here are the real heroes,” says Bertschi. “We just come here and help out once a week. Their dedication to this soup kitchen, there’s not enough words to describe it. They’re here every day, lunch time, in the evening, arranging food, picking up food, buying food, bringing in the guests.”
All three clearly have a commitment to giving back to the community, and that has become infectious. Both Chisholm and Meloen have brought their respective granddaughters to the soup kitchen to volunteer. As well, all three are happy to see that the next generations in their families have picked up on the volunteer spirit.
Meloen also points out that another volunteer tonight, Larry Higgins, recently retired from his position with the Town of NOTL. Though Higgins is a Niagara Falls resident, it was the connection with Meloen that brought him to the soup kitchen.
And Chisholm adds that one of tonight’s servers, Stephen Levy, is also a retired NOTL resident. Levy, also a regular Thursday night volunteer, greets each diner with a charming smile as he hands them their dinner.
The fruits of their volunteer efforts are shown in the faces of those who sit down to enjoy tonight’s meal of steak, roasted potatoes, salad and dessert. As much as the four NOTL volunteers enjoy the camaraderie in the kitchen, the fellowship found among the less fortunate who rely on this meal on a regular basis is crucial to their well-being as well.
And though most of his time is spent in the kitchen, Bertschi says, “we do see some of the people, and a lot of times, it breaks my heart. Every time I come home, I tell my wife and daughter that we’re privileged, so to give a little back to this community, that’s what it’s all about.”
They do such a great job on the dishes in the soup kitchen, it begs the obvious question of how often they do dishes at home. Bertschi speaks fondly of time spent doing dishes, a chance to bond with his wife and daughter. Chisholm says he’s not allowed in the kitchen to cook, so he gets clean-up duties. Meloen, however, jokes he doesn’t do a good enough job, so he doesn’t bother.
At the soup kitchen, though, the wash technician, as Meloen calls himself, does a pretty good job every Thursday, along with Bertschi the bus boy, Rick Durand, the drying technician, and pre-wash technician Chisholm — otherwise known as the A-Team.
The soup kitchen runs out of the Niagara Falls Community Outreach building at 4865 St. Lawrence Ave.