Original article on kids at Siloam Mission

Recently I had occasion to accompany half a dozen 12-year-olds from my synagogue on a visit to Siloam Mission. These young men and women are in the midst of preparing for their Bar (for a boy) or Bat (for a girl) Mitzvah ceremonies – the moment when they stand up and show their community that they are ready to take on adult ritual responsibilities, to sing and speak in public and be counted in the prayer quorum. In everyday life, they are still children who need to be reminded to brush their teeth and clean their rooms, but achieving this milestone is a huge step towards maturity. As a small gesture towards the betterment of the world, a central tenet of Judaism, the children decided to bake cookies and deliver them to a place where they would be appreciated. All of them have visited and worked at Winnipeg Harvest, but this time the choice fell on Siloam Mission - a very different experience. For children of this age, there is very little direct contact with the patrons, as the staff and volunteers call them. Older teenagers can work in the kitchen, but only adults can interact directly with the patrons on the front line. Our visit turned into a two-hour explanation and tour, and these children of privilege (where privilege is defined as having the same bed every night and the certainty of food every day) were pushed far, far out of their comfort zone. We saw the pristine dormitory, the kitchen where our cookies were gratefully accepted, and the room where patrons can “shop” for donated clothing. We saw the beautiful “million dollar” health care centre. We were amazed by the gorgeous art the patrons produce, and by their seeming inability to bring it to a gallery on their own. Our guide, Peggy, spoke to us of people who just need a temporary hand up and of those who will always need support. She related the devastating effects of the closing of the mental health institutions in the late nineties. We walked briefly through the drop-in centre, uncomfortably aware of the amused glances of the regulars. Who, we thought, were we to come and stare at them like animals in the zoo? Despite the beautiful clean showers upstairs, the smell was overwhelming. We suburb-dwellers had been a little afraid to come here, eager to lock away our purses before rolling up our sleeves to do good. We were humbled to learn that the dignity of the patrons was paramount in Siloam’s approach. While the Mission, no longer as aggressively evangelical as in its early days, bills itself as “a connecting point between the compassionate and Winnipeg’s less fortunate”, it was we who were the beneficiaries of this visit. I could see the gears turning in the children’s heads as they digested the words, the sights and smells of a place so unlike their daily lives they could not have imagined it. I know I will be back there, with my children. How about you?