A solemn blessing quickly gives way to raucous piano playing as people line up and wait for their supper, served up by a team of volunteers.
Once a week on Tuesdays, the Potters Hands kitchen on Little Gaetz Avenue in downtown Red Deer serves up supper for those in need. It also offers regular breakfasts, a weekly lunch and bag lunches, too.
The people who need this service have all sorts of stories and reasons that they rely on the food. Some have mental health issues, others drug problems. New immigrants just starting out a life come by, as do the working poor.
It’s a diverse group of faces that can range from 80 to 100 early in the month, immediately after cheques have arrived, to more than 200 closer to the end of the month when the cheques have run out.
Cory Dumas, a 33-year-old lifelong Red Deerian, scarfs down a plate of mashed potatoes, vegetables and chicken. He lives above the kitchen in a small apartment but always comes downstairs for the good food and the atmosphere.
“They’re always nice to me here.”
Once a truck driver, drugs got the better of Dumas. He said he is “trying not to do it” anymore, but later says he doesn’t have a particular drug of choice, “They’re all good.”
The affordable housing he has upstairs is home for now but he takes it one day at a time and does want more from life.
On one wall in a corner is a painted map of Red Deer’s downtown. It highlights what services are available to those in need, ranging from medical to detox to food to shelter to mental health. It was painted on the wall by a group of nurses.
Some diners are engaged in conversation, others read a magazine or devour their food before heading back out. Some sing along to the music provided by an upright piano in a corner and a bass player to the left. They cycle through a list of old favourites and popular songs.
Playing the piano is Allan McKinnon.
He grew up in Prince Edward Island, and his musical talents gave him the chance to jam at kitchen parties, bars and lounges with artists like Stompin’ Tom Connors and Natalie MacMaster.
“It was just because I was there and gifted enough to be at that level.”
But alcohol still gets the better of him. He came to Red Deer about 10 years ago and has relied on affordable housing most of that time. He’s five months sober now, but admits he stays away from the kitchen when he’s drinking.
“I was homeless and I came here to eat, kind of scary at first, but I seemed to fit right in,” said McKinnon.
“I know the music changes the whole mood, at any function. At something like this a lot of the people are edgy or a little uptight, and the music just makes the mood a little better.”
Once a carpenter, McKinnon is no longer able to work, but he still longs for housing security. He admits that is a struggle because of his addiction.
“I’m on medical (disability) and even not drinking, it’s tough. I get by, but it took me a while to get used to it.”