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COLUMN: A rich community

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Susan Roberts

Not long ago I was in a grocery store when a woman surveying the bountiful shelves announced loudly: “I should buy some food for the poor people.”

It was meant as gesture of kindness, I believe, but her use of the word “poor” – and the way in which she used it – left me feeling unsettled.

Poor means “having little or no money or goods; deficient or lacking something,” according to one dictionary definition. But poor can also mean “faulty” or “inferior,” depending on the context.

People who seek assistance from food banks in Sarnia are more widely distributed in the community than you might imagine. Food Banks Canada keeps statistics on how services are used, including the number of members in a family, if the family owns or rents their home, and for how long they’ve been accessing food bank support.

Between 60% and 65% of residents who use the Inn of the Good Shepherd, for example, are employed, have recently lost a job, are retired, or receive a disability pension.

Some Sarnians work two and three jobs and require assistance. Some had decent incomes once that were replaced with lower-paying jobs with no benefits.

Some who come up short at the end of the month once worked at placed like the UBE automotive plant or Hiawatha Slots. Their employer closed up shop and suddenly the financial equation didn’t work.

The monthly welfare cheque for a single person who isn’t working is $690. For someone with a disability, it’s $1,100. The average rent for a single-bedroom housing unit is $800 a month, and often utilities are on top of that.

As well, our society has changed. Not that long ago large extended families lived together and cared for one another. Anyone who has used to trace their history will find grandparents living with aunts and uncles and cousins. Family members who once lived in the same town now live hours or days apart. That family safety net no longer exists.

In short, there are people here who are going without. But they are not “faulty” or “inferior.”

The executive director of the Inn of the Good Shepherd is Myles Vanni. He told me he has lived and worked in a number of places and never seen a community as giving as Sarnia. Even during the recession in 2008 it was building services – The Good Shepherd Lodge, the Dow Centre for Youth and the expanded Bluewater Health, he noted.

At one point in the classic Christmas movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” Harry Bailey toasts his brother: “To George Bailey, the richest man in town.”

Residents here always rise to a challenge. Despite poverty, this community meets the definition of rich, which means “abounding; of great value and worth.”

Susan Roberts is a Sarnia resident and mental health worker.


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