Potter’s Kitchen has served more than one million free meals to nourish Red Deer’s downtrodden over nearly 23 years.
Crystal Schalk, Potter’s Hands Ministries board member and long-time kitchen volunteer, said operating the food program was not part of life’s plan for her and her husband Stan, but it’s been a very rewarding chapter of their story.
“If you’re just going through Red Deer you don’t notice it, our poor population, and the addicted and the hopeless,” Schalk said.
“We started to get to know the people and started to realize what a huge, huge problem this was in Red Deer. We had no idea.”
After purchasing the downtown building, the small, main floor kitchen was used to cook a free pancake breakfast one Saturday without really knowing how many people would show up.
“The first week we had about 50 people. The next week we had about 150. Word travels on the street,” she said about Potters Kitchen, located at 4935 51 St., where low-income housing was developed on the top floor.
A few years later more breakfasts were added which continue today along with a Monday lunch and Tuesday supper. Meals are coordinated with other downtown agencies that offer food programs.
A commercial dishwasher will soon be installed so Potter’s Kitchen can move away from paper plates and plastic utensils.
“Today we have a hired cook and some assistants. They don’t get paid much because we’re not rolling in money. It’s more a heart thing, if that makes sense.”
Devotionals, to contemplate scripture passages or readings, are held before every meal, but people don’t have to attend.
“It’s just part of who we are. We’re not going to just feed them and be done. We want to get to know them. We want to invest in them.”
She said some people have been sitting down for meals at Potter’s Kitchen for several years.
“That’s the sad part. It’s not like they’re moving on. It’s an addiction problem mostly, and unless people take the step to change their lives, to go to treatment, to go to detox, they’re going to live on the street. They simply are.”
Deaths from fentanyl-laced drugs are also continuing. Potter’s Kitchen keeps a Naloxone kit on hand just in case to reverse opioid overdoses.
She said mental health issues and scars from their past prevent them from hanging on to jobs.
“These people are fragile. You get to hear some stories, and their stories are horrific. There’s a reason why they’re on the street, abandonment, things that make you go, ‘how did they even make it through that.”’
But Schalk said despite the misery, there have been success stories. She recalled a woman who ended up working in the kitchen before dying from cancer recently.
“She was rowdy on the streets. When she would see my husband’s truck, she’d throw rocks at it. We just kept loving her, kept inviting her, and she had just a huge change in her life. She started coming to church and she got to know Jesus.
“She became one of our early morning breakfast people that we hired. She did a great job because she knew that population really well, and they knew her too.”
Schalk said it was kind of shocking to hit the recent meal milestone at Potter’s Kitchen.
She said many volunteers over the years have helped make the program possible, and their interactions with the mostly male crowd who come for meals, has helped further their understanding and eased their fear of people struggling on the street.
“They look dirty. A lot of them are just walking around. A lot of them are high. That’s not nice to see, but they’re still people. They’re just trying to live.”