Food for thoughts: Young volunteers have coffee and hotdogs for anyone who wants it on a vacant lot on Tranquille Road

Dark storm clouds roll overhead, lightning flashes and rain drizzles down on a warm Wednesday night.

On a patch of asphalt along a weedy, empty lot between a western supply store and a craft shop on Tranquille Road, a square blue overhead tent provides shelter to five people and a couple of tables with urns of coffee and iced tea, and a tabletop grill that's browning up a load of hotdogs.

People start gathering even before 7 p.m., when the Kamloops Evangelical-free Church youth group members cheerfully hand out free hotdogs and drinks.

Youth pastor Shawn Wagner greets everyone with a big smile, as the teens and young adults around him chime in with offers of drinks and food.

Some of the people who show up live in the area, some drive up in vans or cars or trucks, some come on bikes, most walk. Some hang out and chat with volunteers, some linger in a group under the shelter of a nearby tree, some get their food and move on.

The coffee cart, as Wagner calls it, started last October. What's different about this one from other food offerings around town is that most of the volunteers are kids, aged 13 and up. They meet people they wouldn't ordinarily meet, help out the community and see the value of making other people feel loved, Wagner said.

"Too often, there's that sense of intimidation because we don't know them. Part of the project was getting kids to just serve whoever and give people a chance. Not judge books by the cover. Hear people, ask questions," he said.

"We want people to feel cared for, to feel loved. We don't preach, but if people ask (about God), we'll answer."

Dominic Villeneuve (volunteers call him Snake because he was bitten by a rattler a couple of years ago) admitted he has had a privileged 15 years of life.

He joined the coffee cart on its second week and helps out most Wednesday nights. He has seen the number of clients increase, and recognizes the regulars from the new faces.

"For the first several weeks, I was out of my comfort zone," he admitted. "We treat them like any other person."

It's made him realize how well off he is.

"We've had people tell us how they've screwed up their entire life and they're smiling. I'm at home, bummed out about the little things."

John Mansfield, who volunteers call Cowboy and who wears the black hat and boots to match the title, is a regular who often stays to chat.

"I just live right down the street. I always come for an hour, hour and a half," he said. "It's a friendly environment."

A horse trainer who has done bull riding and calf roping, Mansfield said that while the volunteers belong to the same church, they haven't been preachy.

Geoffrey Muskego pulls up on his bike laden with garbage bags full of bottles. He gets by, picking bottles. He accepts a couple of hotdogs and joins in the conversation.

He stumbled across the coffee cart biking by one day - smelled the hotdogs.

"People pass on the word. Even I tell people. I just told these two people right here," he said, pointing to a couple being handed their hotdogs.

"It's nice to have these things out here like this."

There are rules, said Wagner. No swearing, no violence - everyone must be respectful. It's worked so well, the volunteers don't have to say anything - if someone gets out of hand, other customers are on it.

The coffee cart has created a community. It's not just for people who have little or no money - even a security guard in uniform pops by, confessing he can't pass up a free hotdog. A man on bike picks up a hotdog for himself and one for a friend who's at home sick. He puts the food in a bag and pedals off.

Volunteer Evan Cave, 14, said the experience has been an eye-opener. He has learned not to stereotype people and that, sometimes, all anyone needs is for someone to listen. Some have a lot to get out, he has discovered.

Ashley Scott, 25, has been volunteering since she moved back to her hometown of Kamloops from California in February.

"We need to be taking care of our own community," she said.

She met a man her first week of helping who moved to Kamloops to look for work and be closer to his young son, who lives with his ex-wife.

"He referred to himself as riff-raff," she said, handing a cupful of iced tea to a regular. "You see people come and they say they haven't eaten for days."

Gordon Fiddler has been coming for a while. He also knows there's hotdogs offered downtown on Saturday night, and Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Salvation Army's mobile kitchen.

He said a lot of the same people come out for the free meals. He shows up because he likes talking to people from all walks of life, he said.

By the end of the two-hour coffee-cart shift, volunteers will have given out at least six dozen hotdogs. Some nights it's more, but tonight, Wagner figured the rain kept some people indoors.

Next week, the group will be back.

"Our world is a sad place, it's hurting and broken. If somebody doesn't stand up and say there needs to be change, there never will be change. If I can lead a group of kids into believing they can be part of a bigger change, that's what it's all about," he said.

myoung@kamloopsnews.ca

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