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Elaine Berliner (circled) with some of the 35 volunteers who regularly put on Christmas & Easter dinners for the homeless

By MYRON LOVE

Sixteen years ago, Elaine Berliner was at a low point in her life.
“I was feeling lousy,” she recalls. “It was close to Christmas and it struck me that this must be the way homeless people feel at Christmas.”

 

 

 

It occurred to her that, even though she was feeling crummy, perhaps she could help make things a little better for homeless people by volunteering at a soup kitchen on Christmas day. So she made some calls and, much to her great surprise, found out that all of the city’s soup kitchens were closed on Christmas day.
“The staff didn’t want to be working on Christmas day,” she says.
Now Elaine Berliner is one determined individual who doesn’t give up easily. “My father (the late Morris and Sonia Berliner) were my role models,” she says. “They were always supportive of the Jewish community and taught me the importance of community. They encouraged my volunteer activities.”


Over the years, Berliner has given of her time to several organizations, among them Big Sisters, Meals on Wheels, Teen Touch. She has also served as secretary of the Simkin Centre Family council..
So, unable to find a soup kitchen to help out on Christmas day, Berliner – with the encouragement of friends, decided to go it alone.
“I started by meeting with people at five existing soup kitchens to get some idea about what is involved,” she says. “People told me that I was crazy, that it was too big a project to take on.”
Undeterred, Berliner forged ahead. She managed to get permission from the Salvation Army to use their facilities, and Berliner’s Silent Night Soup Kitchen was born. (She is quick to point out that her Christmas and Easter soup kitchen has no affiliation with the Salvation Army.)


Every year now, for the past 15 years, with the help of a small group of volunteers (among them at times members of Temple Shalom, whom, Berliner notes, were a wonderful group to work with), Berliner organizes Christmas and Easter dinners for up to 500 people. Christmas usually sees 200-300 with more for Easter. Her most recent Easter dinner on Sunday, April 21, fed about 650 people.
“It was just packed,” She says. “It was the biggest supper we have ever done.”
While most are homeless, she notes, there are some who are on welfare and a few families who are among the working poor.
So how does she do it? Well, it helps that for the past 14 years, she has been working in food service. (She recently changed careers and now works for a media company.) She has been able to call on her many contacts in the industry to donate turkeys (for Christmas) and hams (for Easter) and most of the other elements of the suppers.
“I am grateful for all donations,” she says.


She also organizers annual fundraisers – most often a Blues Night at the Windsor Hotel. “The Blues Nights have all been sold out ahead of time,” she says.
“We also have a Chinese auction as part of the Blues Nights with prizes donated by friends and some of my former customers.”
How does she know how many people to expect for dinner? “The Salvation Army gives out tickets two weeks ahead of time,” she responds. “There is an informal network among the homeless.”
She reports that she starts putting together her crew of 35 volunteers about a month before the big day. Her volunteers sometimes include entire families. “We have one family from Guyana and another Filipino family help out,” she says. “It is heartwarming to see families working together to help make Christmas and Easter special for those who may be without family.”
There have been some heartwarming moments over the years. She recounts the story of a friend who comes to volunteer and who brought his young son with him one year at Christmas.
“I always make sure to bring presents for the kids at the Christmas dinner,” she notes. “I usually get the presents at the dollar store. That Christmas, my friend’s son brought with him a wooden train set to give to one of the kids. I took the present and gave it to one of the kids and told him that Santa was here and left the present for him. I will never forget the look on his face. He was ecstatic.
“It became an annual tradition for the boy who gave the train set to bring one of his Christmas presents for one of the kids at the dinner.”


Then there was the time that friends of Berliners were visiting at Christmas from Toronto and volunteered to help with the dinner. “My friends’ 14-year-old daughter had never met a homeless person and was a little anxious about it,” Berliner recalls. “By the end of the evening, she was sitting on the floor playing with the kids and their new toys.”
Perhaps the most moving moment for her and her volunteers came some years ago when a worker came up to them after one Christmas dinner and told them that two of the guests had been contemplating suicide, but changed their minds because they had Christmas dinner to look forward to.
But it not only through Christmas and Easter dinners that Berliner helps the homeless. She also collects clothing and other necessities year round for the homeless. The clothing is stored at her home.
Readers who may wanty to donate clothing can Email Berliner at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Winter wear and socks are most in demand, she reports. “One year, Western Glove Works donated 100 blankets. People snapped them up.
“The Silent Night Soup kitchen is the most fulfilling project that I have ever undertaken,” she concludes.

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