When the needs of society evolve, all the people, places, and things that serve those needs are required to evolve as well. And when an organization has been around for more than three decades—as is the case with The Inn of the Good Shepherd, in Sarnia, Ontario—tuning into those necessities, as well as meeting them, becomes something of an art form.
“We can be pretty adaptable and flexible to whatever the local needs happen to be,” says Myles Vanni, executive director.
That flexibility has been put to the test over the past several years in particular, as the number of Sarnia citizens seeking help for basic needs—both monetary and otherwise—began to swell. When economic times were sturdier, pantries such as the one first established by the The Inn in a church basement were intended to help in a temporary fashion. “But food banks have become institutionalized now,” Vanni laments. “They’re part of the fabric of our community, which is really a sad statement. I feel there are some structural issues, in terms of our society, that perpetuate this issue of poverty.”
The changes at The Inn came gradually at first; the only real additions to its food bank and meal program over the first decade were the St. John’s and Bethany Houses—youth shelters for boys and girls, respectively. It was a decade later, in 1997, when The Haven was opened as a coed-youth emergency shelter, merging St. John’s and Bethany Houses. But the variety of services offered by The Inn has grown at a faster clip since then.
One such service is Genesis, a place for free clothing and household items that’s open one afternoon a week. Genesis got its start at the same time Rent and Utility assistance launched. Vanni sees its presence as part of The Inn’s overall holistic approach to poverty. “If someone’s struggling with bills and we can provide them with clothing, then that’s one less thing [for them] to worry about,” he says. “Then they can put more money towards bills.”
Seasonal events have also taken root at The Inn of The Good Shepherd since the mid-2000s. Some, such as back-to-school kits (distributed in August) and an annual Christmas party, are targeted to kids and young students. But the tax-assistance program, which helps clients file their own claims, has proven to be a great eye-opener. “They have that fear of ‘one more bill I’m going to have to pay,’” Vanni says. “The reality is that most low-income people will be getting money back, but they don’t even realize that until we sit down with them.”
Late 2010 also saw the opening of The Good Shepherd’s Lodge, which added to the The Inn’s services by providing not only transitional housing but a focus on the life skills needed in order to maintain one’s living arrangements, such as doing laundry or planning budgets.
And with the successful trial run this past summer of the Mobile Market—a service bringing donations of fresh meat and produce to communities with limited access to such—The Inn of the Good Shepherd proved its evolutional prowess once again. “So much of what we do is all about partnerships,” Vanni explains. “It’s about connecting with resources in the community, volunteers, and lots of wonderful corporate support. I think of us as the caring hands of the community.”