TIMMINS -- In the four years since Project Love launched in 2016, founders Nicole Gillard and Melanie Chartier tear up at the group’s growth — and their decision to step away.

They estimate more than 45,000 meals have been served to the city’s less fortunate, but getting to this point wasn’t easy.

“At the beginning, there were discouragements and not sure where we’re going,” said Gillard. “When we just trusted and let the community help, I cannot even tell you the beautiful stories, the money that came in, the community help, the volunteers.”

As a retired school teacher, she’s especially proud of how Project Love has been able to feed little bellies with take-home lunches after its suppers.

As Gillard looks back at her work with the program, she said community members who pushed her and Chartier to keep up the effort are some of the many memories that will stick.

'Don't quit, don't give up'

“We were here just struggling and somebody came down those stairs — we could hear the steps — and we can hear in their voices... ‘Don’t quit, don’t give up.’”

For Chartier, it’s been incredible to see how the city’s needy have come to call the program a second home. She remembers guests who would initially be quiet and reserved, eventually join in the communal spirit.

The success stories stand out to her, Chartier said. She would encourage guests to share their stories with others by first talking about her own struggles.

“I was addicted to speed, cocaine, I was homeless and if I can do it — I would always tell them this — if I can do it, you certainly can do it,” Chartier said. “Look what Nic and I accomplished, so don’t sell yourself short.”

“Where there is a will, there is a way. You just have to find it.”

Stepping back from Project Love is a difficult decision, both Chartier and Gillard said, but they are ready for what's next.

Gillard has always wanted to teach English abroad and is set to do that once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

And Chartier’s next goal is to tackle at-risk and homeless youth in Timmins. She wants to acquire unused space in the city and turn it into a youth shelter.

Focus on youth

“If we want to eradicate homelessness in Timmins, we have to work on the youth because they are the future adult homeless,” she said.

As for the future of Project Love, the founders selected Lynda Geddes to assume the reigns.

She’s been fundraising for the program for three years. It will be a large load to take on, Geddes said, but she will have help.

“We do have a small committee that stepped up and said, ‘I’ll take a piece of this and I’ll take a piece of that,’” Geddes said. “If we can work well together and if we can remember what we came out to do -- to keep people fed -- I think we’ll be alright.”

The program has been closed since pandemic restrictions began, but with Timmins part of the province’s Phase 3 reopening plan, Geddes said there are plans to start take-home meals again.

Though restaurants are able to allow in-store diners with physical distancing, Geddes said Project Love isn’t confident it could maintain that distancing, nor would it be fair to leave out some clients from that experience.

All the same, she said people rely on the community connection that comes with the group meals.

“They also come because they want to spend time with someone else and they want to feel that they matter,” Geddes said. “So handing someone a bag and saying ‘Have a good day’ is not nearly the same outcome, but if you’re hungry ... people will come and we’ll do the best we can.”

The program has the funding to start running again, Geddes said, but the main concern is having the volunteers necessary to fill the demand.

Many regular volunteers are elderly or have health conditions, she said, and they would need the younger generation to join the effort. But the group has pushed through challenges before, Geddes said, and hopefully it can do so again.

“I really believe in what’s happening here. I can’t pretend to be able to do it the same way it’s been done, but I do believe it’s important that we care for each other.”