Editor’s Note: This week we’re running our favourite people features of 2021, a reminder that even in difficult years good things happen. This one first appeared April 8.
Sarnia’s Kevin Allen has spent 70 hours a week in the kitchen but even he can’t believe he’s cooked 45,000 free meals for seniors in one year.
Not bad for a volunteer-based project without a plan.
“When COVID hit, I had cooked for a function at my church and had a few meals left over,” Allen said about how it all got started.
“I knew some seniors who might appreciate them and offered to deliver.”
Then, he found a spare roast in his freezer and cooked that up too, after learning older residents were having difficulty getting groceries during the first lockdown. Many were afraid to go outside.
“I found older couples, where the wife was sick and he didn’t know how to cook anything. I realized there were so many people who need good, nutritious food,” said Allen, 55, a professional chef who has cooked for a large summer camp in Algonquin Park the past 18 years.
With those first meals delivered, Allen was surprised by more requests. Most were from family members worried about elderly relatives struggling through the pandemic.
Volunteers began chipping in to help organize and the number jumped to 90 meals a week. Demand continued to surge after the group named itself Sarnia Blessings and started a Facebook page.
“I always said this was all backwards,” said Allen, who is described by friends as a very humble fellow.
“Most organizations see a need and try to meet it. With this, I started cooking and then uncovered a need.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of people waiting to get into nursing homes who shouldn’t be using a stove.
“I never would have believed it in a million years.”
It was only a matter of time before Sarnia Blessings began taking referrals from Bluewater Health for people going home post-surgery, and from community organizations like the Alzheimer’s Society.
At their busiest, Allen and his volunteers were delivering 1,300 free meals a week to about 130 people. That’s 10 meals per person per week.
“We were going to cut it off at 100 but just kept going when the need was there,” he said.
Allen, his wife Jan and their team worked tirelessly to organize it all and started a screening process. From the beginning, he didn’t let the food bills worry him even though it was costing thousands of dollars.
“I always said I’d keep cooking as long as donations came in, and they rolled in week after week from churches, individuals, businesses… so many contributed,” he said.
“I think God primed me for something worthwhile. If I can cook for 500 rich kids a day at summer camp, I can do it for this.”
His church, Lighthouse Community Church, was a big support, as were other churches and service clubs. One local woman made bread. Another baked 600 muffins a week.
In the fall, a Canadian Red Cross grant secured by the French Community Centre covered food costs for 12 weeks.
It was truly a community effort and a labor of love for Allen, who was recognized by the City of Sarnia for going “above and beyond in response to COVID- 19.”
The Sarnia Sting and Imperial Oil honoured him and Sarnia Blessings with an “Extra Mile” award in the fight against the pandemic.
But eventually the 70-hour weeks proved to be too much.
In October, a case of shingles slowed Allen. In February, tired and short on donations, he put Sarnia Blessings “on hold.”
“But we’re not disappearing,” said Allen. Instead, Sarnia Blessings formed a board of directors and applied to become a registered charity. It could take several months but Allen and the new board intend to resume free meal service for Sarnia’s seniors and most vulnerable.
“We’re going to look for funding and we may do some fundraising by selling high-end meals to the general public,” he said.
“It grew and grew so fast. Now what we need is a fully structured organization to properly meet the needs of our community.”