We’re not at our best when we’re hungry.
It’s hard to concentrate on what the teacher is saying when your stomach is growling from hunger pangs.
After 30 years working in Corrections, Mike Csoka knows from experience that the best way to keep people out of the prison system is to help them have a healthy childhood.
So when he thinks about the 750 children a day he helps feed a hot lunch to in Chilliwack, it warms his heart.
And the hot bowls of soup he and his fellow volunteers distribute warm the children who receive them.
Betty Urquhart was one of the first employees of the university and believed strongly in volunteering and giving back to the community. While Betty passed away in 1995, UFV keeps her memory alive by honouring a person or group exemplifying her commitment to life-long learning and community.
The Chilliwack Bowls of Hope Society started on a small scale.
At the time, Csoka was the director of the newly opened Chilliwack Community Correctional Centre.
“When we brought the correctional centre into downtown Chilliwack, we said we wanted to give back to the community in some way,” Csoka recalls. “One of the local schools, just a few hundred meters from our door, said that they had 17 kids who would benefit from being provided with lunch, so we started providing 17 sandwiches a day.”
Csoka retired from his Corrections career, but kept up the volunteer connection. Now the Bowls of Hope Society operates a soup warmer that can hold 1,000 bowls a soup. Three vans take off in three directions from the site daily, delivering hot soup for 750 children to schools all over Chilliwack.
A released offender now works part time for the society, preparing the soup each morning. The rest of the work is done by volunteers, including inmates of the correctional centre and other citizens.
“It’s a wonderful way of giving back,” says Csoka. “If I can keep even one of those 750 kids out of the correctional system by helping to feed them, then it’s all worth it to me.”
Csoka recalls being a marginalized kid who “could have gone either way” when he was growing up. Caring adults who took an interest in him, in particular sports coaches who were also RCMP members, helped him choose a healthy path and eventually a career in corrections. So in away, he’s paying them back by paying it forward in his volunteer work.
Several community partners have stepped up to support the program, including the Local Harvest market, which grows a field of vegetables just for Bowls of Hope, and local businesses that give employees time to volunteer to deliver the lunches.
Some of the released offenders who are now employed donate funds to help pay for the program. There are more than 120 volunteers in total.
Csoka estimates he puts about 25 hours a week into the Bowls of Hope program, but it doesn’t feel like work for him.
“We get letters from kids thanking us for the lunches, or I hear about one of them graduating who the teachers say wouldn’t have made it through without our hot lunches, and it makes it all worth it,” says Csoka.
He says he’s humbled to be singled out for the Betty Urquhart award, and that he’s accepting it on the part of all the Bowls of Hope Society volunteers.