Project Advance is in its final push as 2020 comes to a close. In a year so unlike other years, the archdiocese’s main fundraising campaign has changed its goals from supporting capital projects to becoming a Crisis Response Fund for ministries in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the next few weeks, The B.C. Catholic will tell the stories of some of the organizations that benefit from your Project Advance.

Once every two weeks, a free box of frozen meals arrives at Mervyn Gaffney’s home in Vancouver. He calls it “manna from heaven.”

Gaffney suffered a stroke in January last year, and his wife had a heart attack in March. Now, they are homebound, partly because neither can walk more than a block or drive, and partly because since the COVID-19 pandemic they worry catching the virus would devastate their health and recovery.

So since mid-June, nearby St. Mary’s Parish has been delivering frozen meals to their home.

“It’s so precious. It’s really a great, great help for us,” said Gaffney, who hasn’t seen his children in nearly a year. “We just count our blessings. [The food] is given to us by the Lord.”

The Gaffneys are not alone. St. Mary’s has delivered more than 7,000 free meals so far through a new initiative called All Were Filled, aimed at helping families in a tough spot during the pandemic.

“You have people who are chronically in need, and there are many programs out there to help them, but COVID has created a group of people who normally would not have any problems making ends meet,” said Sister Maria Serra Garcia, FSE, the service and justice coordinator for the archdiocese’s ministries and outreach office. But pandemic-related job losses, reduced hours, illness, and other factors have put them in crisis situations. 

“The idea is to support people until they get back on their feet.”

The meals are purchased from Global Gourmet Foods, a food manufacturing company in Richmond, paid for by the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s Crisis Response Fund and a grant from the Canadian government, and delivered to St. Mary’s, where they are picked up or delivered by volunteers.

On average, four new families sign up for the program every week.

“People sit in the pew and think ‘I don’t have food problems,’ but they are charging up their credit cards, they are going into debt, they are running out of the help that they have in place,” said Sister Garcia.

“It’s not a huge amount, but it’s something that will help you be able to put money toward gas or your electric bill instead of food.”

Lorna Acosta unboxes a delivery. Each box includes six bags of 7 servings each, adding up to 42 individual servings of soups, sauces, and other meals.

Nicky* and her boyfriend were new to B.C., having recently moved across Canada, when the pandemic hit and caused both to lose their jobs. With no income, few connections, and only $70 to make it through the month, the pair was faced with a situation they had never been in before: serious need.

A single mother of five, Margaret* was also devastated when she lost her job due to the pandemic.

“The people we are providing these meals for are people that don’t normally struggle with money or food,” said Lorna Acosta, pastoral assistant at St. Mary’s.

“These are people that send their kids to private schools. We have families within our PREP community … When they call me, it’s one of these approaches: ‘it’s okay, somebody else might need it more than me.’”

But these are precisely the families this program was created for. “Yes, there are other people that could need it more than you, but they have help somewhere. They can go to the food bank and places like that. We’re offering this to people who wouldn’t normally ask [for help].”

All Were Filled began as a pilot program at St. Mary’s, in partnership with the Archdiocese of Vancouver. It’s quickly catching on and several other parishes are gearing up to offer it, too: Our Lady of Mercy in Burnaby, St. Peter’s in New Westminster, St. Joseph’s in Langley, and St. Patrick’s in Vancouver.

Nicky said her hesitation to call the parish to ask for help evaporated when she heard a kind voice on the other end of the phone line. “She helped us… she is the reason we ate for the next two weeks,” said Nicky.

“Thank you to St. Mary’s, you saved our lives in more ways than one.”

For Margaret, the parish offered hope. An All Were Filled volunteer told her: “You will make it through this difficult time. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think,” Margaret recounted. “Every day I look in the mirror and tell myself and my five boys this.”

Volunteers arrange delivery of boxes at St. Mary’s.

The archdiocese’s crisis response fund is fueled by this year’s Project Advance. For the first time, instead of raising funds for capital campaigns in its annual appeal, the Archdiocese of Vancouver has shifted its focus to charities and initiatives directly impacted by the pandemic.

After receiving an initial $100,000 boost from six donors, the crisis response fund has risen to $550,679. Project Advance is still ongoing and the goal is to raise $825,000 for crisis response by the end of 2020.

All Were Filled and nine other groups – addiction recovery houses, and services for people facing domestic abuse, mental health challenges, disabilities, homelessness, dementia, and others – have received support from the fund so far.

While Gaffney and his wife struggle with poor health and a lack of social connections, he said the free meals, as well as the ability to watch Mass online, gives them hope.

“The greatest thing and the only thing keeping us going right now, our faith strong, is we just really believe that the church is really there for us in thick and thin.”

Before his illness, he was a reader, usher, and Eucharistic minister at St. Mary’s. He can’t wait for the day he can go back.

If you or someone you know could use help from All Were Filled, call St. Mary’s at 604 435 9611 or email [email protected] Anyone interested in running the program at their parish can reach Sister Garcia at 604 683 0281 ext. 50242.

*Names changed to protect confidentiality.