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Elaine Russell tends to her flock at the Shepherd's Lunch Room

It is a well-appointed cook’s kitchen at The Shepherd’s Lunch Room, thanks to the use of facilities provided by Trinity United Church, and Elaine Russell oversees the volunteers who served 8,000 free, full-course meals last year.
It is a well-appointed cook’s kitchen at The Shepherd’s Lunch Room, thanks to the use of facilities provided by Trinity United Church, and Elaine Russell oversees the volunteers who served 8,000 free, full-course meals last year. - Rosalie MacEachern

It is much more than a meal that is served up twice a week at the Shepherd’s Lunch Room in the basement of Trinity United Church in New Glasgow.

If it was just a meal, folks could line up for volunteers to scoop something onto their plates. It was not that way when the program started 25 years ago and it won’t be that way as long as Elaine Russell is the executive director.

“The people who come here for a hot, home cooked meal get the same respect as anybody who comes to my house for dinner. Some of our volunteers have joked about it but I insist on an extra fork for pie.”

Open on Mondays and Thursdays, except during Christmas holidays, the lunch room, which a 12-member board operates on the basis of donations, served 8,000 meals last year. Recently, Russell made a successful pitch for one-time funding from 100 Women Who Care Pictou County.

Like the 80 volunteers who work on a rotation, Russell is unpaid but finds the work very rewarding.

“I’ve been here nine years and there is no question in my mind we provide a needed service.”

For her, working at the work has been an eye-opening experience.

“We have quite a few people who, for a variety of reasons, have very little to get by on. We have people who have been coming to the lunch room for years. For some, it is a highlight of the week.”

For many the struggle is simply to make ends meet while others may have mental health, drug or other issues.

“Beyond ensuring it is a safe place for all, our interest is in feeding whoever comes through the door. The MacLean Street door is open from 11:30 to 12:30. No one has to register and it is all confidential.”

Russell was at home caring for an elderly mother when she read in The News that the lunch room was looking for volunteers.

“I wanted something to get me out of the house for a little bit and it didn’t sound like a big commitment so I decided to try it. I wanted to be useful but it was going to be therapy for me.”

She initially helped in the dining room but when organizers discovered she had been a food services supervisor at Aberdeen Hospital for many years she was soon moved into the kitchen.

“Now as executive director I have a lot of different responsibilities but I work with such a great group of volunteers it doesn’t seem like work.

Although she has lived all her life in New Glasgow, she had never crossed paths with many of the volunteers.

“I’ve made a lot of new friends by coming here. It wouldn’t be going too far to say it has changed my life. I would never have been up making a presentation to a large group, that’s for sure.” She buys all the vegetables for the soup that is the starter at each meal and volunteers cook it while people from companies and organizations throughout the county provide the main course and dessert.

“Sobeys, for example, does a meal a month. It will be baked ham, scalloped potatoes, vegetables and cookies for dessert. Employees prepare and serve the food and our volunteers will do all the clean-up.”

Other regular longtime providers include Michelin, Nova Scotia Power and MacLeod Lorway Insurance but the lunch room also gets help from organized and informal groups.

“The retired teachers are one group that comes to make meals and we have some groups made up of friends who want to help out.”

The numbers vary from a high of 120 to the 70-80 who have come in recent weeks.

“We usually have about 100 people so we know we are down right now. We are not sure why but this happens from time to time so we expect we’ll go back up to 100 or close to it.”

On days when they have leftovers they package them for programs at Roots for Youth or Tearmann House.

“Nothing goes to waste because we have strong ties with other community organizations.”

When she is volunteering in the office at the Pictou County Food Bank, she often passes out cards informing people of the meals available at the lunch room.

Russell enjoys a good restaurant meal, loves to cook and is happy to take on the challenge of a complicated recipe but she also likes the little details that enhance the presentation.

“Our people are not going out to nice restaurants so we try to make our meals an occasion. We use tablecloths and if it is Valentine’s or St. Patrick’s Day we’ll have napkins to match the occasion.”

She was surprised one day to see a number of people taking their festive napkins home with them.

“I just thought the napkins were a nice touch but they meant more than I realized. “

Like many organizations, the lunchroom is happy to broaden its mandate to meet a need.

“We have toiletries and used clothing set out for the taking and we always give out Christmas bags. We know our people and if somebody needs something they’ll tell us and we’ll find it.”

Recently a man came in for a meal with the sole of his sneaker flapping loose.

“We offered him a pair of shoes to take home to try on because he didn’t know his shoe size. He brought them back because they did not fit and he gave us a cardboard tracing of his foot so we were able to find him a better pair.”

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