Soup service with a smile for Bowls of Hope

Chilliwack district-wide lunch program feeding a hot lunch to more than 670 children a day

Helen Bertrand (left) and Linda Marshall have a laugh while delivering soup

Helen Bertrand (left) and Linda Marshall have a laugh while delivering soup

Not every parent can pack a lunch.

So at the start of each school day, as kids are tumbling out of bed and out the door, there is a small team of volunteers assembling to do it for them. And on a recent Monday, The Chilliwack Bowls of Hope program was doing what it does day in and day out, just like clockwork.

At 8 a.m., a chef named Michael arrives in the kitchen at a correctional centre on Rowat Ave. He begins to prepare a giant vat of soup, working alongside the Corrections chef who is busy feeding the 30-odd residents there.

Michael stands over a 60-gallon steam cooker, adding the ingredients needed to feed 670 of Chilliwack students. He knows that for many of them, it could be the only hot meal they get that day. For others, it’s a supplement to what they’re already getting at home. So he adds the freshest vegetables available, and stirs it carefully. With a giant ladle, he pours the soup into large, rectangle thermoses marked with school names.

On this day, the soup is tomato vegetable noodle, and the flavour permeates the air in the kitchen and around building. Because it’s a Monday, there’s extra food to send out. Volunteers pack a week’s worth of  buns and jugs of milk out into a hallway, and just like the daily soup thermoses they’re marked with the schools they are heading to. Robertson, FG Leary, Sardis, the Ed Centre. All of Chilliwack’s schools have a need. Nineteen of them are currently receiving soup delivery, and others are signing up all the time.

As the food lines the hallways, other volunteers arrive for their driving shifts. The Bowls of Hope have two vehicles in use, a large van donated by the Chilliwack Fraser Rotary and a minivan donated by Mertin. One covers most of the south side schools, and the other covers off half a dozen north side schools. On Monday’s the former is driven by Linda Marshall, and co-piloted by Helen Bertrand. Other days of the week, other volunteer teams or individuals head out on the same route.

Marshall and Bertrand have been volunteering together for about three years, and became fast friends in the process. It’s about an hour out of their day, and the time flies by for both of them. In the van, they chatter away with each other about the program, and what’s going on in their lives. Each stop is lightning fast, as they pull up to the schools, grab the milk, buns and soup and head to that school’s drop off point. Sometimes it’s an office space or a hallway. At some schools it’s in a support or flex room.

“We’ve got a real smooth operation going,” Bertrand says to Marshall, laughing.

“It’s really enjoyable,” Marshall says. “If I had known I was to get Helen (as a partner), I would have done this way sooner.”

The piping hot soup is all dropped off before lunch, and at the same time the two ladies pick up the containers from the day before. In one hour, they visit Bernard, McCammon, Central, Chilliwack middle and senior, and FG Leary. At each stop, there are usually only a few quiet nods or polite thank-yous to the ladies who zip in and out with these lunches. They rarely get to see the kids who enjoy the soups so much.

But they know they’re making a difference. Every year, students at Bernard put on a show for the volunteers.

“They’re always so grateful,” Bertrand says with a smile.

Of course, the volunteers don’t just bring soup, buns and milk. On Fridays, volunteers deliver about 1,000 sandwiches or hot dogs. And at holiday times, they gather up as many treats and goodies as possible to make special packages for the kids.

The Bowls of Hope program has flourished in the past four or five years. It began as a small way for president Mike Csoka to give back to the community. He’s still involved today, and has been able to see some kids move from kindergarten to graduation.

“We’re lucky to have Mike,” Bertrand says.

Bertrand, a retired Corrections worker herself, says while Chilliwack has always seemed to be a community of more fortunate families, she can see how it’s changing. And as Chilliwack changes, the Bowls of Hope is rising to meet the needs. Managing director Mandy McMahon has been visiting their partner schools to see how each one delivers the meals, what the needs are, and how things could improve.

She’s fairly new to the role, and loves what she’s seeing. At Watson, for example, staff sets out flowers and tablecloths in the soup room, to make it more like home. At other schools, staff or volunteers will cut up the donated breads and buns, or use other ingredients to make sandwiches as an added bonus.

“They each have their own way of doing it,” she says. But the greatest thing to see is kids gathered around a table enjoying a meal together — a habit and a comfort that even affluent families can neglect.

The Bowls of Hope’s next step will be to provide education to families on how to create healthier meals for less. And none of what they do could be possible without the volunteer force, or the donations that have come in from the community, McMahon adds.

Much of the bread they send out is donated by Vedder Mountainview Bakery. Local Harvest offers up storage space for the tons of vegetables they use in a year. The Chilliwack School District recently replaced the old cookers for the kitchen with the new 60 gallon one.

“We are pleased to support Bowls of Hope in providing the nourishment that children and youth at our schools need to be successful learners,” said Evelyn Novak, Superintendent of the Chilliwack School District. “This is a great example of our commitment to ‘Partners in Learning’.”

The list of donors and supporters is endless, including companies who make it their mandate to volunteer. But they will all get together on Friday, May 5 for their 12th Anniversary Celebration, the 2017 Feed the Children Dinner and Auction. It’s the organization’s largest fundraiser of the year, and tickets are $50 a person.

The evening includes a buffet dinner by Best Western Rainbow Country Inn, silent and live auctions, card draws for great prizes and more.

To learn more about how you can help, or for tickets, visit