Wendy Gutcher is a survivor.
“I had a hard life,” she says. “I know what it’s like to be burned out.”
When she was five, her mother abandoned the family, leaving Wendy and her four sisters behind.
“She went out one day and she just left us and never came back,” remembers Gutcher. “I went door to door looking for mothers --somebody to move in with us and take care of us.”
She often went to school hungry and suffered abuse at the hands of the various adults in her life. She lost her home to fire -- twice. A caregiver to her 85-year-old father, Gutcher herself suffers from a nerve disease and issues with her spinal cord. She was involved eight separate car accidents; one serious--where a specialist told her she likely wouldn’t walk again.
She set out to prove him wrong.
“He can’t tell me what I can’t do,” she says. “This is my dream, and this is my plan. I’m going to help people survive; because I get it. I get it.”
Despite being dealt a bad hand in life, Gutcher was determined to dedicate her time toward serving others. Seven years ago, she started SSM Helping Hands out of her small home. She would amass donations of clothing, wash, fold and organize the items, and then supply them to people in need, no questions asked.
“I had 65 bins in my living room, my basement, my shed,” she remembers.
She started a Facebook page, and the operation grew. Then last summer, she moved SSM Helping Hands into a storefront at 146 Gore St.
On a recent chilly Thursday in January, there was a steady stream of customers buying everything from warm winter clothing and children’s toys to tampons and food. I watch as a young woman rifles through her wallet before quietly admitting she’s short $2.75. Behind her, a woman standing in line with her young son says; “just put it on mine; no problem.”
Gutcher will often waive the nominal fee if people are having difficulty finding the cash. Everything in the store is priced under $5, but it is essentially pay-what-you-can; she eventually wants to make everything available for free.
Gutcher says their charitable status designation is imminent, which will be key for securing the funding necessary to keep the rent paid and the lights on. SSM Helping Hands encompasses a storage unit and a storefront, with plans to expand into the adjacent building. Gutcher receives no payment for running the store, nor do the team of volunteers who help with donation collection, sorting, pickups and deliveries.
“We put all of our hearts into this, we need the community to come out and support this,” she says.
She knows how powerful a kind word or small gesture can be to a person who is struggling; “Everybody needs to be treated the same,” she says. “I'm not better than you. You're not better than me. We're all people first. And if you can just help one person once a day, that's 365 people in a year -- that's huge.”
“My dream is to do [SSM Helping Hands], and to open up a homeless shelter for anybody who's homeless, because there's no need for people out there to be living on the streets. They could come in off the streets, get warm, eat for free.”
She points to neighbouring farms that could supply fresh produce, and the grocery stores that could donate usable food diverted from landfills.
“There's no need for food to be wasted when there are so many starving people in the community,” she says.
SSM Helping Hands started small but has been rapidly growing (10,000 members and counting on the Facebook page, where members can directly or anonymously ask for help). They’ve also developed close ties with the OPP, John Howard Society, Ontario Works, ODSP, and other agencies.
“If they can’t help [people] with their needs, they can send them to us,” she says. “If it wasn’t for our community’s donations and the amazing job that our volunteers do, SSM Helping Hands would never be a huge success,” she says. “This is what we call caring and sharing. I don’t take the credit, because this was only my dream -- our community has made it happen.”
Gutcher asserts that the need is huge.
“We easily have a hundred people a day pass through the store,” she says. “One guy came in and had Walmart plastic bags on his feet for socks, and shoes that were too small. He was living in a garbage dumpster . . . [SSM Helping Hands] is well-needed. It’s a friendly environment . . . because you don’t know what someone’s day has been like prior to walking in. People need to be respected; and in giving [them] respect, you’ll learn what it is to earn respect.”
“Now, I can go to bed at night knowing that I’m going to be okay because I’ve got a roof over my head, and I have a fridge, and a cupboard full of food, and a warm bed, and clean water,” says Gutcher. “I do this because I have a heart, and I want to help people survive,” says Gutcher. “I’ve got the best job ever. I really do, I love what I do. Because life’s short. You don’t know when your day is going to be, so you may as well be kind.”