Christmas at The Good Neighbours’ Club with Caterina Scorsone
“I like your Santa Claus, Joe,” I said of the pin attached to the pocket of a man I’d just met at The Good Neighbours’ Club, a day club for older men who are homeless or marginally housed.
“I love Christmas” he said, grinning ear to ear. “I’ve been a member of the club for years and I come every December 25. We both do,” he said pointing to a friend sitting across from him who was clearly more interested in the turkey and stuffing than conversation. “it’s wonderful,” Joe added.
The Good Neighbours’ Club is open 365 days a year, and gives an important sense of community for those who don’t always know where they’ll be sleeping next. The club provides showers, laundry, an address for mail, a place to lock up any valuables, food, clothing, companionship and compassion.
For this Christmas dinner, there were some special surprises, including Caterina Scorsone, one of the stars from ABC’s Private Practice, who served meals to club members. The Good Neighbours’ Club is one of Caterina’s favourite charities, and she had this to say to people about it:
Caterina’s father, Dr. Bruno Scorsone, is the executive director of the Club. He was there with the volunteers, including members of his family, and took time out of the busy Christmas day to talk about why the club is so important to so many:
Volunteers came from all over, including from the congregation formerly lead by Dr. Rev. David Bruce, who is now on staff at The Good Neighbours’ Club. And 50 gifts arrived, donated by the Toronto Police Service and distributed to the men by lottery drawn by Lauro Monteiro who oversees logistics at the club. The police often extend kindnesses to the club. Toronto Police Chief William Blair is The Good Neighbours’ Club vice patron. Lt. Governor David Onley is the Club’s Patron.
When the media showed up to do a story about Christmas at the club, Alex, Ray and various other members of the club were grateful for the opportunity to tell Canadians how important the club is to helping them back to a better life.
People have pre conceived ideas on who may hit times hard enough to use a food bank, become homeless, or need the services of The Good Neighbours’ Club. It’s an irony not lost on many of the members, some of whom were high earning professionals before bad luck, bad choices or bad health brought them to the land of need.
I’ve met men there who achieved more in their careers than I could ever hope to but who now rely on The Good Neighbours’ Club for food and clothing. You might think they’d be bitter, but mostly they are grateful that they have somewhere to go every day of the year when they need it, even Christmas.
Just because they are homeless or marginally housed does not mean they are without community. They have one, and the club is its hub. If someone hasn’t been by in a while, someone will check up on him. When the body of an older man with no ID turns up, GNC staff and club members help the police figure out who it might be. And when one has good fortune, he tries to help his buddies.
It’s a phenomenon Judy Graves, the recipient of the first Good Neighbours’ Club’s Paul Croutch Award for her work advocating for Vancouver’s homeless, knows very well. She discovered she could not effectively get a vulnerable man housed if he was worried about the friends he was leaving behind to the streets. She had much better success when she could say, “I have found housing for you and for a number of your friends – go round them up.” Then they would go with her.
There was a recent study that suggests that those experiencing poverty can better recognize and respond to signals of distress in others, leading them to act more kindly and compassionately in certain circumstances. As the study’s lead author Jennifer Stellar said, “These latest results indicate that there’s a culture of compassion and cooperation among lower-class individuals that may be born out of threats to their well-being.”
I can’t speak to the study, but I can tell you that the men at The Good Neighbours’ Club are gentlemanly in an old world way. They hold the door, many of them stand until a lady is seated, and they offer what little they have as a token of thanks for anything you do for them. And when I am in the middle of the room with a perplexed look on my face (a look that I wear a lot regardless of my surroundings), someone inevitably offers help.
Today it was Joe, who volunteered to watch my video gear as I suddenly realized I could not be in two places at once, and had to leave my equipment behind.
When I got back, Joe decided it was time to move on. He didn’t stay for the raffle of the gifts donated by the police. He was there for the food and the companionship, and it was time to give his place to another. Let someone else enjoy what he has already known, and let another more in need have one of the 50 presents to go round.
Joe was content.
On his way out, he pressed something into my hand, smiled and said “Merry Christmas.” I opened my hand to find the Santa Claus pin he’d been wearing, the one I’d admired.
Now he was content.
And I who came to give of my time left with far more than I came in with.
Merry Christmas, Joe. Merry Christmas.