A few months ago, 28-year-old Keely says, she was in a bad way. Financially. Health-wise. And that’s saying something when you’re already wheelchair bound, trying to get by on disability, dealing with a bleeding disorder and serious breathing issues that cause you to pass out unexpectedly. But when the government cheque she relies on to pay for her very expensive medication got tied up in a bureaucratic bungle—for the second time in a year—she wasn’t sure where her next meal was going to come from.
Her doctor’s office suggested she visit The Alex’s drop-in breakfast and low-cost produce market, and Keely discovered the site in Calgary’s Forest Lawn neighbourhood was only a few blocks from where she grew up.
“I was hooked right away,” she explains. “I started going more and more. The centre is very wheelchair accessible. And the meals are gourmet. It made me realize food can be healthy and tasty at the same time.”
That wasn’t the case during the four years she spent in hospital trying to get her health issues under control. The food was heavy on carbs, light on fresh fruit and veg. When she was released two years ago and was finally able to live on her own, she found her stomach hurt and she had no energy.
“I’ve also been really depressed,” Keely recalls. “I felt meaningless, that I was merely existing. I didn’t want to hang around and play games all day. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to help others.”
Hearing this, staff at the Alex found Keely a place in the volunteer program. On Wednesdays, she helps set up the drop-in meal, cleaning and rolling cutlery before lunch or doing other odd jobs to prepare.
“Usually when I tell potential volunteer places that I have these health problems and sometimes pass out and stop breathing, it scares them right off. Thanks but no thanks, they say. But staff at The Alex didn’t even flinch. I’ve had a couple of incidents there and I figured they’d call and say don’t come back. But they told me I was welcome to return as soon as I was able.”
Lately, Keely’s feeling a lot better. The food she picks up at The Alex to bring home or enjoys at the community meals takes the pressure off her limited budget. Plus, she’s made friends. A few weeks ago, she was talking to another community member at the drop-in who was feeling depressed and alone. At the end of their conversation the woman thanked Keely for making her day. She’s been coming back ever since.
“It’s given me a new sense of purpose,” Keely explains.
Part of that new determination includes participation in the centre’s FoodFit program, which includes cooking classes and recipes to take home, learning about where food comes from, as well as a group walk—or roll. Keely mostly manages to power her wheelchair with her arms, but sometimes a facilitator will offer an assist on a hill. Her goal by the end of the 12-week program? To wheel through the entire circuit entirely on her own steam.