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The Ark Aid Street Mission - More than a Meal
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By Rick Vandekieft

The Ark Aid Street Mission was founded in 1984 with a mandate to serve people who live on the margins of society. It is a registered charity that receives its support from local people, churches and businesses. The motivating factor of the Board, staff, volunteers and donors is to practically express Christian faith and love where needed most.

My recent visit to the Ark, as it is popularly known, was hosted by Executive Director Rev. Douglas (Doug) Whitelaw. It is an interesting story of how Doug came to the Ark as it was not the regular path most take to reach their calling. After Pastoring in small town Ontario, Doug became the Dean of a bible college in Nairobi which he did for 9 years before returning to Canada. The college become renowned for the world's first joint degree in bible translation, drawing students not just from Africa but from around the globe.

Doug retuned to Canada in 2003 assisting various ministries including 5 years with Mission Serves International. Then, out of the blue, the director of the Ark called Doug with an offer as he was moving to Belle River. Doug had no experience with street missions but he did have the talents that the Ark needed — leadership and administrative skills. Doug joined the Ark.

All stories that Doug tells about the Ark's work include high praise of the team he works with. He says they are unbelievable and they are the very best at the jobs they do. The team also includes 100 plus volunteers and Doug says that it's a rare day when there isn't at least one call or visit from someone new that wants to lend a hand.

The volunteers are from all walks of life, a wide range of talents and experiences but with the common objective — to serve. He is thrilled by the number of UWO students that take part on a regular basis and says that they just "fit." He adds: "Not all of the volunteers are evangelical believers but I know that they are in the presence of and feel His presence while here."

Who are the patrons of the Ark? According to the City of London statistics, there are 1800 to 2000 homeless people in the city. The Ark certainly does not reach all of these people but they are ready to help all that come through their doors. They are the homeless and the impoverished — most are unemployed and some are physically and spiritually injured. The Ark turns no one away.

There are groups in this area of the city that are pushing to close the Ark or at least move it away from "their" part of the city. They say "these places" are responsible for crime and violence making it unsafe for "them". The truth of the matter is that there is no violence, there are no fights or disturbances in or around the Ark. Compare that to the regular news reports of the violence on Richmond Street Friday and Saturday nights.

Those familiar with the Ark Aid Street Mission may know it as the place where those in need can get a good warm meal and yes, that is 100% true. However, the Ark is MORE than a meal.

Granted, they do have a wonderful meal program serving on average 100 meals a day 6 days a week. And these meals are not your standard soup kitchen type meals but most often gourmet style servings. The meals at the Ark are prepared by a retired chef whose previous job was to set up the food service division of high end resort hotels. He set up the kitchens then hired the chefs, cooks and the other kitchen staff. He knows the ins and outs of the high end restaurants and he accepts no less for the patrons of the Ark.

Each evening the doors open at 6:45 and following the devotion at 7:00 the meals are served. In 2011 the Ark team served 26,000 meals with a record 132 in for dinner one day last year.

"The miracle of the five loaves and two fish."

I asked how the Ark could afford the cost of supplies for such elaborate meals. The answer? They don’t buy food as they have no budget to do so! All food is through donations and when they have an abundance of something, they will trade with others but most often "great stuff just shows up".

The dinner servers are all volunteers and often they are scheduled for months in advance. Connections Church and West Alliance each have their own day every week, and they always come with a load of requested food items to replenish the shelves. The Ark also receives generous donations from the UWO food court, Starbucks and many retail stores in the area.

Each afternoon the Ark hosts a two hour social for their patrons to come by to chat, play cards while enjoying a light snack, tea and coffee.

The Ark is More than a Meal….

Ark Wear

One section of the building is referred to as Ark Wear, a small clothing store for the area patrons. Clothing is donated and resold for a token amount — maybe fifty cents or as much as three dollars for winter coat (the truth be known — a lot of the clothing is given away). Their greatest need year-round is men’s clothing items and all footwear.

Computer Training

Many of the Ark's family are men and women that are currently unemployed but desperately want to get back into the work force. Because most jobs today require some computer skills, the Ark offers computer training twice a week, teaching basic computer skills.

The New School of Colour

The Ark Art program is one the greatest successes of the mission. The workshop is held in cramped quarters in the cellar of the mission. It's packed with new canvases along with beautiful painting in the works and completed. Doug talks about the pride this program ignites in the participants. "You witness an instant transformation as the dormant seed blossoms before your eyes. Smiles never seen before, laughter never heard before and at last ...conversation."

"A number of paintings from our little studio hang in offices, banks, stores and corporate hallways. Can you imagine what it does to the heart and the soul of one of our artists when someone wants and pays for their work? The money is wonderful but the boost in pride and self-esteem lasts well after the money has been spent."

Ark Crafters

Each Friday afternoon another tight area of the cellar is home to the Ark Craft Program. Currently the crafters are working on weaving milk bag mats to send to African countries. "When these people are helping others in need — they know they are doing His work."

Ark Helping Hands

The Ark offers counselling but they have an unwritten policy learned from those agencies that try to "do it all." The Ark team does not try to solve all of their patrons' problems, just the ones they are asked for help with. The success of counselling or advocacy is knowing the system and how it works. "The person in charge has to be committed, relentless, fearless and know how to work the system. We are blessed to have the city’s greatest social worker. She gets it done!"

Other services offered varies from time to time and depends on the gifts people bring to the Ark. There are nursing students, hair stylists, barbers, and other specialists that come to the Ark to offer their skills and the Ark welcomes them with open arms. Even Miss Canada has been to the Ark to speak at a recent event. Miss Canada? Don't judge too quickly — read her story in the Ark newsletter (click http://issuu.com/douglas_whitelaw/docs/newsletter_sept_12/1)

Executive Director Rev. Douglas Whitelaw sums up the Ark Aid Mission: "At the Ark there is a story a day, I witness as faith grows within our family. I see God here every day doing His work and we are in the thick of it. Where are the Miracles? They are here."

For more information about the Ark, or to get involved visit the web site at http://www.arkaidmission.com or please call 519-667-0322. Office hours: weekdays 9:00 am - 5:00 pm.






COMMUNITY DIRECTORY