From left, Al Crowe, Joan Smith, Toni McKelvie, Jim Garner, Ann Smelsky, Peggy Palmer, Susan McKnight. BRIAN GREEN

Delivery of some 14,000 free meals during Covid recognized

Niagara Region Chair Jim Bradley said it best in his remarks at Regional Council on June 24: “The Fonthill Legion jumped into action when the pandemic hit, offering a service far outside of their core mandate.” Bradley was announcing the eight winners of the Niagara Impact Awards, created “to recognize individuals, non-profit organizations and private sector businesses who have gone above and beyond to improve the quality of life of those living in the Niagara region.”

Royal Canadian Legion Branch 613, the Fonthill Legion, was nominated multiple times “for the extensive community impact of preparing and delivering over 14,000 meals, free of charge, to individuals who were housebound due to the ongoing pandemic.”

The lockdown was declared on March 17 and by the week of March 20 the Legion, under tireless President Toni McKelvie, had mobilized volunteer cooks and drivers to begin distributing meals to those in need. McKelvie notes that while the need was increased by the restrictions of the pandemic, “When we started, I didn’t realize how many need this service. We could still be sending out meals to the many in need in this community.” Legion Vice President Jim Garner revealed that the delivery drivers heard heartbreaking stories from those who were financially unable or physically incapable of providing for themselves.

“More than once I drove away from a delivery with tears in my eyes,” he said.

The Legion was helped to supply the meals that ranged from roast beef to pasta to quiche to chicken to cabbage rolls, by donations from the community. Retired restaurateur Vilma Moretti produced her cookbook “Keith’s Pies – a Recipe Book” and donated half of the proceeds— $6700—to the Legion’s efforts (with the other half going to Pelham Cares). CannTrust in Fenwick provided a $5000 cheque, and many residents gave to support the effort. Garner added that often the recipients insisted on giving what they could, including some who “slipped an envelope into the hands of the driver containing a few quarters or loonies.” Often, he said, the drivers would be engaged in a 20- or 30-minute conversation with people who just needed someone to talk with.

About ten Legion volunteers put in the hundreds of hours required to send out meals every Friday, with five usually working in the kitchen (with Niagara Health inspectors being frequent visitors) and three drivers distributing the meals. Recipients were found first by direct contact, and then word of mouth took over and the meals were in demand across Pelham, and even beyond. McKelvie said that while the award was welcome, “This service was part of the Legion’s effort to help our community.” Volunteer Ann Smelsky added, “It’s nice to be recognized, but we did this because we wanted to!” Vice President Garner chimed in, “People really rally behind Toni.”

The Fonthill Legion was in impressive company in winning the inaugural Niagara Impact Award. In the Community Leader category, builder Tom Rankin was recognized for his contribution and efforts in raising $2.8 million to purchase a new MRI machine for Niagara.

There were three winners in the Individual category: Justin Preston, of Ft. Erie, for his role as Kids Help Phone ambassador and anti-bullying spokesperson; Natasha Bell, of St. Catharines, for creation of Black Owned 905 to promote Black-owned businesses in Niagara; and Amanda Cole, of St. Catharines, for raising thousands of dollars for those in need through raffles and baseball tournaments.

Anisha O’Brien, of Welland, won the Youth award for crocheting and donating 100 scarves to the Hope Centre for homeless individuals.

Beside the Fonthill Legion, the Valhalla Project won in the Non-Profit category for providing treatment for first responders suffering from PTSD through multiple programs, including an innovative service dog initiative.

In the Business category, Dillons Small Batch Distillers was recognized for their innovative production of hand sanitizer at their Lincoln facility that was given away to first responders and long-term care homes.

Chair Bradley noted that “Staying upbeat and positive was a challenge over the past 17 months and these nominees and winners should be proud of what they have done for our region.” When the awards were announced at the State of the Region address in April, it was thought that three awards would be presented, but Bradley revealed that he was so impressed with the quality of submissions that the awards were expanded to eight recipients in Community Leadership, Individual, Youth, Non-profit, and Business categories.

“I was frankly overwhelmed,” Bradley said, “with the quality of the nominations that were submitted on behalf of more than 250 individuals, businesses and non-profit organizations. I was moved by the sacrifice, generosity, and innovation.”

The Niagara Impact Awards are well-named, as the Fonthill Legion’s enormous effort and generosity have had a profound impact on many in the Pelham community. The Legion’s many contributions, such as monetary and food donations to Pelham Cares and support for programs to assist injured and aged veterans, often go unremarked. The Region’s Impact Award is welcome recognition for McKelvie and Garner and their hard-working volunteers.