Editor's note: This story is part of our "50 Stories of People Helping People" series. As we celebrate Penske's 50th anniversary in 2019, we are spotlighting associates every Friday who are making a difference in their communities.
On a recent fall evening, as the temperature dipped outside, Penske associates in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, were serving warm meals with a side of fellowship to the area's homeless and hungry.
As they had done so many times before, the associates were volunteering at the Parish of St. Margaret, site of Lakeshore Out of the Cold, a faith-based outreach program providing warm meals and shelter to area homeless.
Each Monday from mid- November to April, the church hosts more than 100 people for dinner and provides overnight lodging for 25-30 men, offering them breakfast in the morning and a bagged lunch to take with them.
Penske's associates have signed on to volunteer once a month for the next six months, and the Toronto District has pledged to donate funds to cover the cost of the meals.
"Once you do it, you want to do it again," said Denise Sanford, Penske's district financial manager in Toronto. "It is just a wonderful experience."
Bringing the Homeless Out of the Cold
A 2018 Street Needs Assessment, completed by the city of Toronto and partner social services agencies, found there are nearly 9,000 homeless people in the city, according to Dixon Hall, which works on behalf of vulnerable populations in Toronto, including the homeless.
"Homelessness is a complex issue and a persistent challenge in Toronto, with the number of men and women experiencing homelessness increasing every year," said Kali Madej, communications manager for Dixon Hall.
Founded in 1988 by Sister Susan Moran at St. Michael's College School in Toronto, Out of the Cold is operated by inter-faith organizations and a legion of committed volunteers in cities across Canada who assist the homeless during the winter months, when they are especially vulnerable.
"The Out of the Cold program serves the immediate needs of the homeless community during the harsh winter months by providing them a safe, warm place to sleep protected from the severe weather, and by providing warm, nutritious meals with a deeper sense of community," Madej said.
While the number varies year to year, the program "typically sees over 13,000 overnight stays across the season, with approximately 1,200 unique guests accessing the program," Madej said.
This is the 20th season that St. Margaret has participated in Out of the Cold, according to Cara Wigle, coordinator for Lakeshore Out of the Cold at St. Margaret's.
"Out of the Cold came from the community outreach that we were already doing, and it was an opportunity to help the homeless in the community as well," she said.
While the meal is held at St. Margaret's, the parish works with other religious institutions and local businesses to finance and provide meals for the program.
On Monday nights, the Out of the Cold meal can draw as many as 100 people, who are served a sit-down meal, from appetizer to dessert, by a host of volunteers, many of them regulars.
Wigle credited volunteers like the Penske associates with helping the church provide meals to so many in need.
"Our parish is small, so we depend on groups like Penske to help us with the meals and the funds our cooks use for the meal," Wigle said. "When we have support from community people like Penske, we are able to provide a really good meal."
Warm Meals, Warmed Hearts
Penske's volunteerism with St. Margaret began last year, when the group was looking for a way to serve the community together and thought Out of the Cold would be a great fit.
The associates volunteered at three of the church's Out of the Cold dinners on Monday evenings and four Community Dinners, which is a separate outreach held on the third Friday of the month throughout the year. Each time, Penske donated funds to cover the cost of the meals.
Eager to roll up their sleeves, the Penske volunteers have stepped in to assist in any way they could.
"They help to put final touches on the meals, put things on the tables, serve and clear the meal, prepare the desserts and often make the lunches," Wigle said.
Those attending the meal are seated as guests, with the volunteers serving them. The appetizer is usually soup followed by the main course and then dessert. After the meal, volunteers help prepare the space for the men who choose to sleep overnight at the church.
Throughout the volunteer experience, the servant spirit of the Penske associates shines through.
"They are all so happy. They are younger than a lot of us, so it is nice to have young people who are so enthusiastic. They have lots of fun, and they talk with the guests," she said. "Everybody here knows they are enjoying what they are doing, so it adds a real warm feeling."
Penske's Sanford said the associates enjoy striking up conversations with regular guests and the guests know the Penske group by their signature aprons.
"Now that we've done it so many times, many of the faces we see at these dinners we have seen before," Sanford said. "We had Penske aprons made last year, so now we are identified as the Penske folks."
Jesse Shipman, an area rental manager in Eastern Canada, was new to the company last year when he began volunteering with Out of the Cold. He viewed it was a way to meet other associates while giving back to the community.
"It is such an enjoyable atmosphere and makes me feel great that families and individuals that might not have been able to feed their children, or themselves, are able to stay warm and be inside," Shipman said. "Just the fact that the weather is colder, the days and evenings are darker, and that these guests know they can come inside, have a great meal is such a great feeling."
Sanford credited Kevin Carlyle, a national account manager in Mississauga, Ontario, with suggesting Out of the Cold as a potential volunteer experience for her team. Carlyle, a Toronto resident, has volunteered for Lakeshore Out of the Cold as a way to give back to the community.
"I see many of the guests throughout the week in my own neighborhood, and they are an equally valued member of the community just like anyone else; to me, donating and supporting a cause is about personally making a difference along with a grateful heart," he said.
A sense of giving back is something found in many associates across the organization.
"When you are reading '50 Stories of People Helping People,' and whether it is California, Florida, Texas or Ontario, you read these stories about the generosity of Penske associates," Sanford said. "This is associate-driven and part of who these people are who work for this company."
By Bernie Mixon