What started out five years ago as an offer to chop some vegetables for a friend developed into a transformative experience for Manitoba Hydro’s Stephen Dueck.
“My friend Jess is the Executive Chef at Diversity Food Services,” said Stephen about the business that operates food outlets as a subsidiary of the University of Winnipeg.
“Most of their ingredients are sourced locally and they have a strong commitment to community,” said Stephen. “That includes providing meaningful employment for people who are traditionally marginalized – refugees for example or those from inner city low-income households, and individuals who have been in the justice system.”
Stephen knew Jess often helps a charity called Agape Table which is located very close to the U of W.
“Agape Table was providing upwards of 500 food bank meals each morning to people in the community using a normal residential stove,” said Jessica Young, Executive Chef for Diversity Food Services.
“When I started at Diversity, that relationship with Agape Table was something I thought was important to continue and well as expand,” said Jessica. “We have space and capacity to help. They are often not equipped to deal with the kind of donations they receive. As an example, they sometimes receive flats of pork which requires processing. We are equipped and we have professional staff. Stephen has helped me many times and has convinced other Hydro employees to help several times as well.”
“I told her that I’m not especially skilled in the kitchen but that I’d be happy to come in sometime and chop vegetables or something for a few hours,” said Stephen. “I had some Hydro friends that I had volunteered with in the past and who I missed spending time with, so I invited them along. We had a great time together, left our spreadsheets behind to get our hands dirty for a while – and we took some of the load of Jess’s staff who already worked some pretty long hours.”
Hydro employees help
“Before I worked at Hydro, I kept noticing how many Hydro people seem to volunteer their time in different places,” said Stephen. “I’ve come to see that’s just who Manitoba Hydro is. It’s important to me to be around that kind of people – that’s part of why I came to work here.”
Stephen, who works as an Engineer at Manitoba Hydro, explained that he had built some solid relationships while in university.
“These were hard-working people who had great integrity and donated some of their time to volunteering,” said Stephen. “I aspired to be more like them – and they worked at Manitoba Hydro.”
Having been at Manitoba Hydro for about 11 years now, Stephen has been able to make use of his Hydro connections to help in different ways.
“Working with Jess in her kitchen I’ve gotten to know some really amazing people,” said Stephen. “The man who washes dishes doesn’t speak English well. He is such a kind person and so hardworking, but he was laid off from his job when the pandemic hit and couldn’t access help because he couldn’t fill out the forms. Some of the staff are so vulnerable because of societal barriers. I found someone at Manitoba Hydro – an absolutely amazing woman named Mary Rezai who speaks Farsi and very kindly agreed to help.”
Street-side steak breakfast
Stephen told a story about a gentleman who left $3000 in his will for Agape Table to provide a steak breakfast to the people who use its food bank.
“Providing a steak breakfast was going to be a big challenge for Agape Table, but Jess’s team was able to do it for them at the Diversity kitchen with ease,” said Stephen who worked as part of the assembly line. “We made steak breakfast wraps – my assembly line job was the cheese.”
“You see how little people have, and how important it is to them to be acknowledged, to have someone say hello to them,” said Stephen who helped drop off the food to Agape Table. “Taking an interest in someone’s story and letting them know you think they’re tough as nails for keeping going can make a difference. I have someone close to me with mental illness, and I know small things can big things. I think people should be recognized for their internal heroism – and if I can show up with a steak wrap to witness that… that’s the easy part.”
Interest grew with awareness
Stephen’s volunteering for Agape Table started out small.
“It began as something I did when I had an evening to spare. But over time I’ve developed more of an interest,” said Stephen. “I see how much of a need there is. People have walked from all over to get to Agape Table. And they have such complicated life issues. I think when you show up, it’s less about charity and more about solidarity.”
Since learning about Agape Table and Diversity Food Services, Stephen has a deeper appreciation for the impact it offers to those in need.
“When I used to drive to work at the downtown Hydro building, I would be frustrated sometimes at the unsafe manner in which people crossed the road,” said Stephen, who became choked up as he continued. “And now I realize what they are walking toward – they are getting a meal. And that’s probably the best part of their day. For many of these people this is also where they catch up with their friends and keep up with the shifting availability of social services they rely on. Most people at Agape don’t have cell phones or, I’m betting, regular access to internet. It was easy for me to overlook the importance of a community meal, particularly one that people are willing to walk miles for. And because of the reduced capacity in shelter organizations due to the pandemic, the need now is even bigger.”
Time well spent
Jess and Stephen estimate he has likely volunteered about 200 hours for Agape Table over the last few years. He was happy to learn about Manitoba Hydro’s Employee Volunteer Grant for employees who contribute 50 hours of volunteer service to a registered Canadian charity within a calendar year.
“Through the grant, Manitoba Hydro donated $200 to Agape Table for my volunteer time this year,” said Stephen. “That’s huge – it purchased juice boxes to go with breakfast meals. Small, tactile comforts can really help a person reset – like the way my coworkers and I would grab a coffee to re-organize ourselves after a tough meeting. A small treat like a juice box could be a day changer to someone living on the street.”
“The fact that this grant is available to our employees tells you what kind of company Hydro is,” said Stephen. “It puts power in hands of individuals. Rather than a corporation just donating money for something, this puts a face on it, and I find that much more meaningful. And I think that’s part of the Manitoba Hydro ethos and story. We’re real people trying to do the right thing in the communities we’re involved with, personally and professionally.”
“Stephen has helped out fairly consistently for three years,” said Jessica. “And usually when he shows up, he has wrangled some of his Manitoba Hydro friends to help as well. He’s also very efficient and intelligent at taking direction – so when he brings others in to help, he’s good at setting them up and teaching them how to do things properly. His involvement has been important because I don’t think I’d have accomplished what I have without his help.”