“Coldest Night of the Year” approaches at Open Arms

Open Arms’ Leslie Bellingham poses in Coldest Night of the Year toque outside of the drop-in centre on Fifth Street in Welland. VOICE PHOTO

Welland charity gears up for annual fundraiser


The Opens Arms Mission in Welland is preparing for the Coldest Night of the Year walk on February 24, a nationwide charity event now in its seventh year. Last week, Open Arms’ donor relations manager Leslie Bellingham said that Welland-based organization has been running a walk for the past five years.

“The aim of the walk is to raise money for the hungry, homeless, and the hurting,” said Bellingham. “In each city where a walk is held, the funds go to one charity, and in Welland that’s us.”

“It’s a fun family event—people can register to walk and raise money with their friends, their coworkers, anyone at all. You can walk alone, too, but it’s more fun with people,” said Bellingham. “Our youngest participants are pushed in strollers, while our oldest last year was 90. He’s back this year at 91.”

She said that the number of people involved grows by 20 or 30 percent every year, and expects some 250 to 300 walkers and volunteers to be bundled-up on February 24. There are three other walks planned in the area, in Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, and Grimsby, but because Welland is the only location in south Niagara, Bellingham said that it will draw participants from Pelham, Port Colborne, and even as far away as Dunnville.

One Pelham resident participating is Julie Edwards, who has walked on the Coldest Night twice previously, and will be captaining the team “Friends of Pelham and Beyond” this year. She stressed how important she believes a place like Open Arms to be.

“Open Arms serves the people of our community. They provide hope—and isn’t this essential in order to move forward when wanting a better life?” she said. “I think so.”

Bellingham made clear that there are several different distances that walkers can complete, and that the evening most certainly isn’t competitive.

“There are two, five, and ten kilometre courses—check-in will start at 4:15 on the twenty-fourth, and then we’ll start walking just after five. So it’s more of a ‘late-evening’ thing than at night.”

After participants have finished their routes, they will meet back at the City of Welland’s facility on Lincoln Street for chili.

While walkers and volunteers may be hoping for mild temperatures, Bellingham said that spending time out in the cold is part of the point.

“It’s a fun night, but it’s also about getting to see what it’s like to walk out in the cold. Most of the people who come to Open Arms don’t have cars. Some of them take the bus, but some of them can’t even afford a bus pass. So when they don’t have money for groceries and have to come to the food bank, they’ll walk here,” said Bellingham. “Sometimes as far as ten kilometres.”

Open Arms’ goal for this year is $45,000, and with a week left it still had a ways to go.

“This is one of our biggest fundraisers of the year,” said Bellingham. “We don’t receive any government funding, so we have to raise it all ourselves from businesses and individual donors.”

The hub of Open Arms is its drop-in centre on Fifth Street in Welland, near the arena. There, the group operates a food and hygiene products bank, and is open for drop-in coffee Tuesday through Friday mornings. Every Saturday there is a hot lunch, which Bellingham describes as excellent.

“It’s a really good lunch. We try to make it like a family meal—just the same as going to Grandma’s on a weekend afternoon,” she said.

In addition to the main centre, Open Arms also operates a thrift store nearby called Redeemed Goods. There, Bellingham said, Open Arms can raise money for its operations while simultaneously offering affordable clothes and household items.

“Having the store means that we aren’t always just giving specific things away,” said Bellingham. “We can give our clients in need vouchers to go to the store and pick out what they need. That way, it isn’t us telling them, ‘This is what you need in your home.’ It’s about dignity.”

Bellingham emphasized that Open Arms views its mission as walking along with people in need, and said that Redeemed Goods allows many to gain employment experience.

“If we can get grants to pay people, then it’s a paid job, but even when it isn’t it still gives the chance of vocational training—basic job skills and something to put on a resume. They might have a hard time holding a job before, and this gives them a chance,” said Bellingham. “It’s great to see the growth in people. There are some who start in the store and they can’t look anyone in the eye. They start off sorting stock, and then graduate up to working with customers.”

Open Arms also has a farm property on Forks Road, where it has space to store and sell furniture, appliance, electronics, and other large items. It has developed a “learning garden” at the farm, with some of the produce being sold at a fruit stand and the rest put on offer in the food bank.

Last Wednesday, as Bellingham was doing some of the final work for the walk, volunteers were beavering away in the kitchen making soup to package up for the bank. The smell of it cooking wafted through the entire centre. When one man came inside midway through the morning his glasses fogged up in the warmth. A dozen or so visitors to the centre sat together at tables, speaking quietly to each other.

Before making a brief trip outside, Bellingham dug in a closet for the official toque of this year’s walk.

“I won’t be walking on the night of,” she said, explaining that she’d be too busy.

“But my kids insisted that I walk the route because I’m saying that I’m involved—they just want me to be honest about it. So I’ll go through both the two and five kilometre routes ahead of time to make sure they’re safe, and I’ll be able to say that I’ve done the walk.”

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