Lending a hand with no strings attached

SPARKS is a volunteer group that offers weekly meals and random acts of kindness to the less fortunate in the Chilliwack community.

Serene Mumford (left)

Serene Mumford (left)

You may have seen them – a group of smiling volunteers dishing up hot food near Five Corners on Sunday evenings.

They operate quietly, somewhat under the radar, assisting others in any way they can.

The grassroots group of volunteers is known as SPARKS (Special People Acts of Random Kindness Shared). Not tied to any business, religion or official charity, they are merely driven by compassion.

“It’s old school,” one of the three founders of SPARKS Serene Mumford began. “It’s neighbours caring for neighbours. Everybody looks out for each other.”

Mumford, Laura Keeley and Sue Knudsen came together in December 2014 with a collective understanding that they had more than they needed, while others in Chilliwack didn’t have enough.

As a small act of kindness, they pulled up their vehicles downtown and handed out what they had to those who needed it. They shared hot soup, warm clothing, hats, scarves, and a smile. It was there that they began to better understand the often harsh realities faced by the less fortunate, which ignited a passion to do more.

They put out a call through their social networks to see who was willing to lend a hand.

“The amount of people who offered to help was overwhelming,” Mumford explained. If we have so many people and businesses in the community willing to help, they realized, where could we go with this?

Join what has since been their centre of operations, the SPARKS Facebook page, and you’ll see that they’ve grown to more than 1,600 members strong. They do what they can to look after others in the community, offering that much-appreciated hand up.

Every Sunday, they organize a dinner downtown at Five Corners for the hungry. Through a flutter of conversation in the Facebook group, members coordinate the dishes and supplies to often follow a theme. Two weeks ago, it was Italian night.

“Being non-denominational allows people from all backgrounds to help and receive help,” Keeley explained. “And it’s not just about a meal, it’s more than that.”

They’re sharing kindness and conversations as they serve the dinner, and they also freely distribute other basic necessities like clothing and hygiene products.

The supplies are generously funded or donated by individuals and businesses in the community. The list of restaurants, shops and organizations who have stepped up to contribute is seemingly endless.

“This is all about word of mouth. We don’t go around asking for donations. We don’t canvas door to door,” Mumford explained. “They hear about us and approach us to offer something.”

“SPARKS is such a fantastic group and [they] deserve some appreciation after all the good that they bring to our community,” said Dawn Thompson, Retail Sales Manager at Value Village Chilliwack, which recently donated $625 to the group.

And it’s not just the homeless population that they serve. Volunteers feed an average of 150 to 200 people in an evening, many of whom are seniors, people living on disability, or children.

“There’s no strings attached,” Knudsen added. “We’ve welcomed them to come and we do what we can for them.”

Many of those who receive help are happy to return the favour by cleaning up, or coming back to serve. “We give, and they give back. It’s an ongoing circle,” Keeley said.

SPARKS’ efforts extend beyond their weekly community meal. In the past, they’ve given people rides to the hospital, helped people find jobs or housing, and even been known to bake a cake or find that special gift for a child’s birthday when parents are going through a tough time.

“Some of us don’t always have time to commit 100 per cent,” Mumford said of the volunteers. “But we all give a little bit, and it comes together to make something wonderful.”

The volunteers walk away with a real sense of pride in the difference they’ve made. “I go home feeling like I mattered,” Mumford explained.

The group is always looking for more volunteers, donations and fundraising ideas. They’re also continually raising money for larger items like tables, folding chairs, a trailer and storage solutions.

“This is our community, we’re raising our kids here. We want it to be a good, decent, safe and happy place to be,” Mumford said.

To learn more, find SPARKS on Facebook or email them at fraservalleysparks@hotmail.com.