Written by Karen Whaley | Photos provided by ArtHeart Community Art Centre
Christmas can be a dark time for people living on the margins. For guests of ArtHeart’s annual Christmas dinner, a holiday feast is more than a meal—it’s a lifeline.
ArtHeart is well-known in the Regent Park community as a place for free-of-charge arts programming for children, youth, adults and families. Less known is that they are one of the only drop-in programs in the neighbourhood that is open on Christmas Day. Every year on December 25, participants from the adult program and a group of dedicated volunteers gather together in the ArtHeart studio at Daniels Spectrum for a turkey dinner with all the fixings.
The Christmas dinner was first celebrated twelve years ago when Tim, ArtHeart’s Studio Manager, realized that they were losing people to suicide over the holidays. Many of their adult program participants struggle with mental health and substance abuse issues and extreme poverty. “Christmas is a vulnerable time for depressed people,” says Tim. “All the talk about family and presents just crushes them.” When a group of Muslim youth from ArtHeart’s Youth Employment Program approached him looking for something to do on Christmas Day, Tim saw the opportunity to create a new holiday tradition.
This year, more than 35 people gathered together in the ArtHeart studio to enjoy a relaxed and festive dinner, which takes the volunteers days to cook. All the food is donated by Second Harvest and the Daily Bread Food Bank. At the end of the night, each guest left with a generous helping of leftovers and a goody bag filled with food, gifts, and warm gloves and hats.
ArtHeart’s annual Christmas dinner has come to mean more than food to the participants, just as their daily programming is about more than art. “It’s a community,” explains Tim. “A lot of our adults here are living with a disability. Some are living on the streets or in shelters. We give them a place to go where they have a sense of family.”