A quarter of a century ago, a few dedicated people in Red Deer, Alberta came together with a shared vision – to alleviate the suffering they saw in their community. Their desire was to reach out to those living with addictions, homelessness, abuse and loneliness, and provide practical help and solutions. With the help of a growing number of donors and volunteers, they asked God to multiply their efforts and help them to provide nourishing food, safety, counselling, shelter, justice and education to those in need. The Loaves and Fishes Benevolent Society was born, and quietly began transforming countless lives in Central Alberta.
In recent years, the Loaves and Fishes Society has been experiencing financial struggles. The recent downturn in Alberta’s economy didn’t help, and funding recently reached a critical low point. The very difficult decision was made to close down at the end of June 2016.
And that’s when the unexpected happened.
Loaves and Fishes approached the Calgary-based ministry, The Mustard Seed, to take over their assets – and the answer was an enthusiastic yes. The Mustard Seed has been serving people experiencing poverty and homelessness in both Calgary and Edmonton since the 1980s. It will now be honouring the work that Loaves and Fishes has been doing in Red Deer over the past 25 years by standing on their shoulders.
“We want to build on what they’ve done and are hoping to enhance it, to improve it,” says Byron Bradley, the new Central Alberta director of The Mustard Seed. “We really felt God’s blessing in this.”
Making Red Deer The Seed’s third location, Bradley spent the month of June observing and learning how Loaves and Fishes served the disadvantaged.
“It was such a hard position for them to be in,” Bradley says. “I had a lot to learn but at the same time there were people who were grieving here because of the loss of their jobs.”
Since The Mustard Seed took over on July 1, Bradley hired five staff from Loaves and Fishes and explains these staff members are “really rejuvenated. They feel like this is a brand new opportunity.”
William Cochran, the food services coordinator who used to work with Loaves and Fishes, agrees.
“I find that there are a lot of changes that are happening that are very much needed,” Cochran says. “Loaves and Fishes were doing their very best. But if we’re not structured, we’re going to crumble and this is becoming very structured. I’m thankful for that.”
The Mustard Seed is continuing the work Loaves & Fishes started by serving three meals a week to the homeless and providing brown bags for the School Lunch Program. Now 17 schools, including Catholic, private and public school districts, are being serviced with up to 400 lunches each day.
Recent Mustard Seed donor and volunteer, Val Jensen, is an advocate for the School Lunch Program.
“We went in and looked at the shelves and there was hardly anything on them, and there is one staff working to prepare all of the lunches,” says Jensen in a Red Deer Express article. “Their need is now, and we can help them now.”
Jensen, also a member of the local 100 Women Who Care organization (which now number almost 200 women), made a passionate plea to support The Mustard Seed’s School Lunch Program. This group of women meet four times a year and each time pick one charity to assist. At their most recent meeting, late in September, they threw their support behind the School Lunch Program with each woman writing a cheque for $100 to help fill the empty shelves.
“We’re absolutely honoured and humbled that we were chosen for the donation,” Bradley says. Even though this is “a good start,” he is encouraging others to help cover their annual budget for this program of $320,000 or volunteer to deliver lunches to the schools.
Bradley worked for 13 years at the Calgary Mustard Seed and hopes to incorporate the “best practices” from that city to Red Deer.
“Now in Calgary we have a Medical Clinic, a dental office and we’re opening a new Health & Wellness Centre,” he explains. “It’s cool to see the progression from providing folks with the basic services of food, clothing and shelter to affordable housing, job training, education and now health and wellness. We can see God’s hand in it all.”
But Bradley is still taking “baby steps” in Red Deer. The first was to close the popular Loaves and Fishes drop-in program.
Typically, The Mustard Seed doesn’t run a drop-in because “we don’t have people just come and hang out and not move forward,” Bradley explains. “We have intentional space for a program – prayer, housing, education, employment or spiritual direction.”
Staff members are going out on the streets every day and meeting disadvantaged and homeless people where they are at. By bringing them water, food and snacks, Bradley says it gives them a chance to really build relationship.
With an Open House on November 3, Bradley is excited about introducing the Central Alberta Mustard Seed to the community. As people see the work they are doing, he hopes to raise support for evening meals on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“We are asking groups if they would make a meal commitment through to the end of June and also commit to being a dinner sponsor, covering the cost of the meal,” he says. “In Calgary and Edmonton a lot of the groups will pay for the meal and serve it as well.”
He and his staff are already planning a special dinner on Christmas Day, and a week of all-age family activities before Christmas.
Having the security of the Mustard Seed infrastructure backing him, Bradley says, “I have a great executive team behind me, mentoring me. I’m very optimistic about the future.”
Looking ahead, Bradley wants to help the disadvantaged become gainfully employed and provide physical and mental health services.
“For us, the meal is one very small part of caring for the whole person.” Bradley explains. “Our goal is to continue to build hope and well-being, through Jesus’ love, to Alberta’s most vulnerable citizens.”
For more information, contact Byron Bradley at 1-403-347-1844 or visit www.theseed.ca/reddeer
All photos by Peter Fleck