Salvation Army Major Sean Furey, as director of the Salvation Army Community and Family Services centre on Elgin Street - commonly known as the Salvation Army Food Bank - provides thousands of pounds of donated food and performs other acts of kindness for the many poor and hungry people in Sault Ste. Marie.
Assisted by a handful of paid staff and approximately 40 volunteers, Furey works morning, afternoon and evening hours throughout the week to help those in need.
He has an uncanny ability to bring in large donations of food to the Army’s food bank.
In fact, while speaking to SooToday last week, he received a phone call from a grocery store offering the food bank a large quantity of beef.
“I just got a skid of beef for free. I’m glad I took that call,” Furey chuckled.
“I do this full time. When I say full time, I do 60 or 70 hours a week. Last night, I was standing on a ladder harvesting grapes to bring to the food bank today. I’m always doing something but I enjoy this work.”
Not one to boast about himself, Furey spoke at length about the work his team at the food bank does before he eventually shared his own feelings as a Sault helper.
The food bank specializes in food recovery.
“We recover about 200,000 pounds of food every year from local grocery stores, a few restaurants and the Mill Market and it’s stuff that has come close to its best before date, not expiry date. It all used to go to the landfill. Now we have a program here where we reclaim all of that and we turn it into about 100,000 meals a year,” Furey said.
Furey receives donated food from the Sault’s Metro and Food Basics stores as well as Joe & Janice's No Frills.
“The whole food recovery program idea started with a vice president of Metro. He was actually a volunteer with a food bank. He came up with the idea and made it happen. It took years to get it off the ground but we’re doing it very well here.”
A single person or a person with a family can call the food bank, outline their particular food needs, show up at the food bank’s front door on Elgin Street with identification to pick up their order and can walk away with a hamper fulfilling those needs.
That service helps about 30 families, amounting to 90 to 100 people, Monday through Thursday of each week.
Clients can also show up at the food bank between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. or from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Thursday and pick up a meal at the door.
“In that time frame we’ll serve about 240 to 250 people,” Furey said.
“They can just show up at those times. If you want to come and grab a rotisserie chicken and an egg salad sandwich, just show up at the door. We had 268 people yesterday. On a slow day we have 140 people. Today we could probably do close to 300 people. It’s a lot of people.”
Furey hails from the Town of Riverhead St Marys Bay in Newfoundland and Labrador and has lived and worked in the Sault for the past five years.
He has been working at food banks and soup kitchens across the country for 19 years.
Apart from directing the Sault’s Salvation Army food bank, Furey is pastor of the local Salvation Army church on John Street.
“I do what I do because it’s what Jesus tells us to do. I’m a Christian. Jesus says to feed the hungry so I feed the hungry.”
“This is not just about meeting people’s physical needs and feeding them. There are people who come here because we're nice to them. We have a Bible study here on Friday for clients who want to come and they say they come because it’s a safe place.”
Salvation Army food bank clients can get milk, yogurt, cheese, juice, fruit and vegetables, meat loaf, rotisserie chicken, ribs, macaroni and cheese, bread, buns, rolls and granola bars.
“We get a lot of vegetables from the Mill Market, hundreds of pounds of vegetables,” Furey said.
“The Food Basics stores and No Frills provide us with a lot of meat. It’s not unusual for us to go to one store and pick up 200 pounds in one trip and we pick up four times a week. We’re probably going to give away 50,000 pounds of meat this year.”
The food bank also receives financial donations from individuals to maintain its services, which also includes occasionally providing donated furniture to those trying to get back on their feet, and on one occasion, giving donated bicycles to needy children as gifts to enjoy.
Thanks to a financial donation, the Army has also been able to maintain a mobile food bank for seniors with mobility issues.
Furey estimated the food bank had approximately 35,000 visits from clients last year.
“There are people here who come every week,” said Furey, who doesn't see his clients as faceless or nameless.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. I know a lot of the clients’ names. I can look down the lineup outside the food bank and say to the volunteers that I need some gluten free bread. I know who needs gluten free bread, who is vegan. After a while you get to know people. I’ve actually made friends among our clients. They’re good people and we just try to be there to help them out.”
Clients passed by and said ‘Hi, Major’ while Furey spoke to SooToday on Elgin Street last week.
“If you don’t have enough to eat, nothing else matters. Your life will be horrible. We try to bring people a little joy just by giving them something to eat,” Furey said.
“I get criticized by people sometimes because I’m slower trying to serve people because I want to know what they want. So if you come to me and you want ribs and salad for supper, you’re going to go home with ribs and salad. If you say it's my birthday today I will do my best to get you a birthday cake.”
Furey said he clearly sees the misery brought on by drug use in Sault Ste. Marie.
“We try to be an encouragement to people who are trying to work through their addictions to get them over those rough spots.”
He also sees the Sault’s poverty.
“Not everybody who comes here is on welfare. Many of our clients are working but just not getting enough hours. We have massive numbers of seniors lined up for food. I had a gentleman call a few days ago in tears. He’s in his 70s and worked his entire life and in his 70s had to come to a food bank for the first time.”
He sees the city’s homeless.
“We keep trying. We keep donating sofas and beds and clothing. People keep bringing me that stuff and it’s easy to give that away. A clothing store donated $40,000 worth of clothing in one week. It was a business that failed during the pandemic.”
Furey spoke of a woman in prostitution who the Army worked with for months.
They got the woman off the streets and she is now looking for a job, he said.
“We listened to her. We gave her emotional support and resources like food and clothing. Starting over is not easy. You can find somebody an apartment, but they need a bed, a chair, a kettle, they have nothing. So helping them through that process is time consuming but it's rewarding, very rewarding.”
“Feeding people is not the only impact I’m looking for. It’s transformation, changing people’s lives. If you can get one person out of their addiction that’s a success,” Furey said.
“This is the worst I’ve seen anywhere,” he said of the poverty level in the Sault.
“The poverty is widespread and deep. There are people coming here who have jobs, they’re working 40 hours a week but they’re the working poor. There are people with pensions from wherever they worked and can’t pay their rent. We’ve had people who come here in their work uniforms, people who are on minimum wage and not getting enough hours who can’t make ends meet.”
Furey lamented that food banks were created years ago as a temporary stop gap measure but that they now seem to be a permanently needed service.
“When you're on welfare and get $733 a month, somebody’s dropped the ball,” Furey said, stating that the various levels of government and the community at large need to do more to help.
Despite the often heartbreaking effect of seeing people suffering hardship, Furey emphasized he enjoys his work as a helper.
“It’s positive. I think it’s life affirming. When I come to the end of my life I don’t want to look back and have regrets over things I didn't do.”
“When I look back over the lives that have been impacted, the people who have had complete, drastic 180 degree changes in the direction they’re going, those are lives that have been saved. I don't do the saving but I’m part of a big machine that works for good."