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'A lot of people are going hungry': Newmarket Heights fights COVID-19 together

A local pastor, Maple Leaf Public School, and residents form virtual committee to help those most in need

Residents of Newmarket Heights bear the scars of the violence, greed, and fear that has plagued the neighbourhood, but a local pastor who often walks the streets to get to know his neighbours said he’s also discovered peacemaking, trust, and generosity, especially during the hardship brought about by the coronavirus crisis.

Newmarket Church of Christ pastor Nathan Pickard, who has led the congregation from its Davis Drive and Longford Avenue location for 16 years, strolls through the community on a recent warm Wednesday and talks about a new partnership that has formed to help those struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Volunteers from the church, Maple Leaf Public School and community residents meet once a week virtually to answer the question of what’s happening on the streets.

“What we were learning is that a lot of people are now starting to go hungry in May,” Pickard said, as he stopped to say hello to a friend.

Neighbourhood residents, some of whom live on limited and low incomes, and others who work for cash or minimum wage, are falling through the cracks of government assistance that doesn’t cover them, he said.

“That’s the group that we, the Maple Leaf school volunteers, and residents are paying attention to, to try and help them through this,” said Pickard, who is married with two children. 

“We’re discovering different groups of people in the neighbourhood,” he said. “Some who have good-paying jobs and they may have lost them but they are surviving, others have been laid off but through government help, they’re getting by. There are also people working minimum wage jobs or jobs for cash. And if you work a job for cash, you might be able to make ends meet at the time but there’s no paper trail and no government help.”

This week, after collecting donations and being offered food at cost from VanSpall’s No Frills in Markham, the volunteer group put together and delivered food boxes for 30 local families. Another 50 food boxes are planned for next week. Each box costs about $50 to produce.

Each household receives a mix of fresh vegetables, frozen and dry goods, staples such as milk, eggs, bread and cheese, and juice boxes for the little ones. The church’s worship space, in effect, has been transformed into a food distribution zone.

“What’s interesting is, as we knocked on doors of families that we know who might need it, some said to us that they are OK today, but their neighbour three doors down who lives in the basement needs it,” Pickard said. “In this neighbourhood, it’s generosity that we’re seeing, and people are saying if you can help my neighbour it’s better that you do that. That’s the kind of people who live on these streets.”

As Pickard stood at the corner of Septonne and Sheldon avenues, where a man was shot dead on the sidewalk in October 2017, he recalls performing the funeral service for the victim that was attended by many Newmarket Heights residents.

“It was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever done,” Pickard said. “From where I stood, I knew violence had entered into our streets, but the people gathered at the church to hear a word of peace.”

These days, the global pandemic that has forced a nearly two-month-long shutdown of the community and economy is on everyone’s minds.

Positive chalk art messages can be seen written on the sidewalk, two friends stretch out on yoga mats in their driveway to get some exercise, and a man sits in a chair at the front of his house, having a cigarette, with a big bottle of hand sanitizer on a nearby table.

Newmarket Heights resident Jesse Burton, who was on his way home from a neighbour’s with two bags of groceries, including a batch of homemade bread, is saddened because the pandemic has forced him to be away from his wife, Rose, who lives with the rare genetic condition that affects the nervous system known as Friedreich ataxia, or FA.

Rose is in a Richmond Hill care facility and, to keep her safe from the coronavirus, Burton has only seen her twice in the past nine weeks.

“I used to feed her and then I’m touching things but I have to make this personal sacrifice and not see her because if she gets COVID-19, it would probably kill her,” he said. “(The pandemic) is not only affecting my everyday life, but it’s also affecting my personal life because I haven’t been able to see my wife in, like, forever.”

Burton said he misses the human contact most since the coronavirus hit the community.

“These are really tough times for everyone, not just for people in old-age homes or in care. I’m 32 and I’m healthy, somewhat, and I’m scared,” he said. “You can’t find hand sanitizer anywhere. I think about this time last year and there were no worries. You could ride the bus, go to a Jays game, my wife could go to bingo. Now, everyone is miserable and depressed.”

But, at the same time, neighbours are trying to figure out how to help each other through economic, emotional, and social turbulence.

A new Facebook group, Newmarket Heights Community Cares - COVID-19 Resource Group, has sprung up and now has 88 members who offer support, services, donations, and time, as well as requesting help if needed.

A site administrator, Kerrie Jackson, noted that “these are strange times for people financially”.

“Families that haven’t had to rely on ‘outside’ help before are now having to make sacrifices to pay their bills,” she said. “This group was created to provide support for those in the Newmarket Heights area who might be unable to get basic necessities during this time. We welcome all donations and volunteers who would like to offer their support in any way they can.”

From Penn Avenue, the Newmarket Church of Christ can be seen just beyond the still-bustling Tim Hortons at Longford and Davis.

Its proximity to Newmarket Heights serves as the foundation of its doctrine: sharing the kingdom of God through friendship with the neighbourhood. 

That friendship manifests itself with a summer camp for local children, a community garden where neighbours share the bounty and, during non-pandemic times, worship and community meals.

“It’s interesting how this neighbourhood claims us as their church even though many of them won’t ever come to worship,” said Pickard. “But if the church ever needs anything, some of these people will be the first to give it to us.”

Pickard is “deeply thankful” to the Maple Leaf Public School community for its caring and partnership in supporting the neighbourhood.

“I have lots of favourite people in this neighbourhood who have taught me what generosity looks like, what love looks like,” he said. “It’s strange to be the pastor and have other people teach me what it means to be a pastor.”