Little did Antoinette Laffreniere-Stowe know that, as she worked away in the basement storeroom of a little outreach centre, Jesus was working out a new plan for her life.
Antoinette is the Director of the King’s Way Outreach Centre, or more affectionately known by locals as the King’s Way Café, in downtown Hamilton, Ontario. But despite her years of retail management experience, she wasn’t hired through any corporate interview process. She started out literally on the ground floor as a volunteer sorting out clothing in a basement.
“I lost my job, had had a number of surgeries, and my marriage had fallen apart, in that order,” she laughed as she described her tragic introduction to the King’s Way. “And it was hard coming here. I didn’t want to walk through the doors of a food bank. I lived on the Hamilton Mountain and was going to go to a food bank that was down the mountain, right in the hardcore part [of town]. I was worried about who I would see, worried about the judgement. But my friend said this place was different, and it was.”
For [some people] it’s not a lifetime of poverty, it’s just a moment of poverty. And I think the biggest thing to let everyone know is that there’s recovery from all of it.
She tells her incredible story with a sense of gratitude, conviction and a contagious smile. The King’s Way, she explains, played a significant role in helping her get through a difficult divorce and making ends meet while out of work and recovering from surgery. For the past seven years, she’s been paying the care forward to others who are in the desperate place she once was.
In that time, she’s learned to not paint every person’s life or situation with the same brush.
“Some people walk through that door, and it’s just a moment in time [that they’re struggling]. They’ve wound up in a bad situation. For them it’s not a lifetime of poverty, it’s just a moment of poverty. And I think the biggest thing to let everyone know is that there’s recovery from all of it.”
Going beyond meeting needs to solving problems
Antoinette knows that the key to transformation is to eliminate systemic poverty. So the King’s Way goes beyond meeting needs to solving problems. And while they’ll never give up providing a hot meal, a shower or new clothing for those in need, they have a wider vision of breaking down the things that keep people in poverty.
Key services offered are job skills training, educational workshops, and healthy food options. Within their relatively small space they have a restaurant-sized kitchen, a clothing store, a cafeteria which doubles as a classroom, and large storerooms for clothing and food.
“People can come and volunteer here at the King’s Way to get practical job experience. We have a volunteer here who is homeless but who really wanted to work. He went to six other stores and they wouldn’t hire him because he didn’t have a home. He came here desperately wanting to work. We gave him that chance. Turns out he is a great worker and a joy to have around. So if people want to go get a job, they have a place to call [for a reference].”
Antoinette also has a heart to not just tackle hunger in the city, but to offer healthier food options for people in need.
“We used to give away about 5 bags of groceries per week. Now we give away 50 per week. And these bags are full, they’re not piddly bags. And I used to ask, ‘why do we have to give away the leftovers? People would donate rotten food, or expired food. I don’t know why we’d give that to people, I mean, would you eat that? If your loved one was suffering, or was going through a hard time, would you want your loved one to have that? And if you see people on the street that are overweight, why is that? We’re donating bread, pasta and yes that’s great, it fills them up, but they’re not healthy because they’re not eating healthy.”
So she started praying for fresh fruits and vegetables. And she now estimates that the amount of fresh produce coming into the kitchen has more than tripled since last year. The King’s Way has also been able to offer eggs, milk and other items for the first time ever.
80% to 90% of our volunteers are former clients. So there’s where you can say the transformation actually has happened.
And Antoinette can appreciate all this because she was once in need herself.
“After I got through things, I came back here to pay it forward. I thought I’d only stay a year, but I’ve been here almost 7 years now! And my daughter, she came here for practical experience while she was at McMaster [University] studying psychology. She’s been here almost as long!
“It’s been amazing to see the changes in people here. We’ve seen people coming off addictions, the crack house across the street and the bar next door closed down which were enabling a lot of the problems our clients were facing. And the biggest thing is that I’d say 80% to 90% of our volunteers are former clients. So there’s where you can say the transformation actually has happened.”
Never stop growing
The King’s Way has been in the news over the last few years and has earned a reputation of being a light in one of the darkest parts of downtown Hamilton. Home Depot recently donated flooring for the café to be redone, and the main area has been remodeled to be more open and inviting.
But Antoinette wants to keep on growing and expanding to help more people. She says that donations of men’s clothing, feminine products, and fresh and non-perishable food are always needed. They’re also looking to replace their kitchen floor and get a new chest freezer.
Anyone looking to volunteer or make a donation to the King’s Way Outreach Centre can call 905 308 9991 or visit their website at ALifeAtATime.com