Mark Saldanha and his volunteers share food and spread the joy of friendship in downtown Halifax.
When Mark Saldanha was a little boy, he had an experience that would change his life.
Saldanha was born in Mumbai, India (also known as Bombay). As a child, he and his family periodically travelled from their home in Canada to visit family there. “In some parts of Mumbai the poverty is horrible. There are beggars lying in the streets. Some are dead, and people walk right by. I witnessed that as a kid,” he explains.
One day, he rode out in a rickshaw with his mother and they encountered a man with leprosy begging in the street. Saldanha was frightened. The man was very old, and badly disfigured by disease. “I recall one key moment. My mother gave me some money to hand to him, but I dropped it on the ground because I was afraid to touch him. In that moment, my mother told me that the man needed to be treated with respect and love. She taught me that even though someone has leprosy, this does not mean you should be afraid of them, or treat them any differently.”
Those early experiences stayed with Saldanha. His family emigrated from India when he was a preschooler, settling briefly in Kuwait before coming to Canada when Saldanha was five. Today, at 21, he just finished his third year at Dalhousie University studying neuroscience and is studying hard for his MCAT, a standardized test required for admission to medical school.
Saldanha has a warm smile, and his face shows a mixture of joy and determination when he talks about the things that matter to him. “It really hurts me to see people struggling,” he says. “Even in school, seeing kids being bullied, refugees, people who are sick. It breaks my heart. That’s why I want to be a doctor.”
“I used to say, ‘When I’m a doctor, I can start helping people.’ But why not start now? I can do it now.”
That’s where Greater Love comes in. Saldanha started the not-for-profit organization more than a year ago to offer food and friendship to poor, homeless, and vulnerable people in downtown Halifax. “On Spring Garden Road, if you’re walking with your friends and you just stop for a minute, you’ll see a homeless guy, with his cup, his head in his hands, and nobody will stop and look him in the eye. We’re scared of the unknown, but we need to acknowledge that these people are there.”
Almost every weekend, about 15 volunteers gather on Spring Garden Road. They have food ready, like muffins and juice, packaged in individual bags. Splitting into teams of three, they introduce themselves to people who are poor and homeless and offer them food.
“But it’s not about the food, it’s about making a connection, letting them know we care, that we love them,” says Saldanha. “We want to show them compassion and the respect that they’re longing for. We often find that the one thing they’re longing for is for people to acknowledge them and treat them like a friend. That’s what we’re here for.”
Greater Love has about 100 volunteers, mainly university-aged students, who take turns serving their fellow citizens along Spring Garden and, sometimes, Barrington Street.
“We’ve built a lot of friendships,” says Saldanha. “I think every time we’ve gone downtown we see someone new.”
“It’s almost never how you think it’s going to be. Sometimes adults see us, and say we shouldn’t be doing this, but it’s broad daylight, and they’re our friends now. There’s nothing to be scared of.”
At first, Saldanha and three of his friends bought the supplies themselves. Once word got out at his church, the Parish of Saint Benedict, people started helping out by making sandwiches and donating money. His parents and brother are also big supporters of Greater Love.
Spending time with homeless and vulnerable people has taught Saldanha and his fellow volunteers a lot about empathy. “They share so much that we’ve never heard or thought about. They’re in a privileged place to teach us about the goodness and sweetness of humankind. The really beautiful thing is you see so many people coming together to serve others,” he says, his eyes lighting up. “When they’re all serving, spread out on Spring Garden Road, they’re doing the most beautiful thing they could be doing right now. They’re not doing it for anything, but they’re having a really good time, they’re laughing, they’re smiling.”
Volunteers are recruited through Dalhousie and from other universities in the city. “This year, we’re going to be a society so we can go to society fairs on campus and recruit volunteers,” explains Saldanha. “Right now it’s a lot of my personal friends, and then they tell their friends. We’re on Facebook and Instagram, and it’s been spreading.” Friends at different universities want to start their own chapters of Greater Love, so a starter package is in the works to help make that happen.
“People say millenials are just on their screens,” sighs Saldanha. “But these people are so generous! They give up their time on weekends, and we have so many young people willing to help.”
“It’s open to everyone. We have Catholics, Muslims, atheists, everyone, the whole spectrum. You spend such quality time together, and we try to make up different groups every time we go out so people can make new friends. We encourage everyone to come, because we think everyone should experience this. Some parents bring their children, too. It’s a good idea to introduce them to this and instil this sense of service at a young age.”
For Saldanha, the driving force behind all this is his faith. He believes the very least he can do to spread love in the world is to care for vulnerable people. “It’s the whole throwaway culture,” he says. “Everywhere you go people are lonely, people need help.”
When he’s not volunteering or studying, Saldanha works as a research assistant at Dalhousie’s medical school. He also loves playing guitar and leading his church youth group of kids from grades six to 12.
Aside from medical school, Saldanha’s plans for the future include expanding Greater Love to help other vulnerable people. “I would also like to complete my MBA so I can continue to grow Greater Love, and help vulnerable people around the country and beyond,” he says. He plans to form groups of volunteers to regularly visit elderly people and reach out to refugee youth in high school and university for friendship.
“Poverty right now is not just financial; it’s the poverty of loneliness. People are lonely, and loneliness is the root of so many problems.”
Getting to know the people he serves has been a wonderful and surprising gift for Saldanha. “I would never have expected them to be the people they are,” he says. “They are just like you and me, but at some point in their lives they’ve been dealt a not-so-good hand. It could happen to anyone, and once they’ve been on the streets their self-image is shattered. We want to help them put that back together.”
All this is a lot for a young person to handle. Does Saldanha ever just go home and cry? “It’s very sad to hear what some of these people have been through, I get tired, and I definitely need a lot of help,” he answers thoughtfully.
“But it gives me a lot of hope for the future to see my friends doing this important work. These are the leaders of tomorrow, and look at the amazing things they’re doing!”
Text by Erin Elaine Casey / Photos by Michael Hall