Cynthia Louis serves her community with food and love
By Erin Elaine Casey
Photo ErinElaine Casey
Fourteen years ago, Cynthia Louis fell in love. She came from the Bahamas to study psychology at Acadia University in Wolfville in 2004, and by the time she graduated in 2008 she knew it was a love that would last forever.
“People ask me if there was a guy involved, and I say no, there was a country involved,” she laughs. Louis laughs a lot, and her huge smile is contagious.
Louis’s modest office at the Parker Street Food and Furniture Bank, where she’s Client Services Coordinator, is filled with paperwork and sticky notes. The registered charity distributes food, furniture, and clothing free of charge to families in need in the Halifax Regional Municipality.
Louis has been with the organization for ten years, ever since she graduated from Acadia. “It was only supposed to be a six-month thing, I needed a job, but that changed and I stayed here,” she explains. “I started out sorting canned goods and breaking boxes in the back. It was hard, and one lady taunted me about being a university graduate breaking down boxes.” But she stuck with it, and soon started serving clients and filling in on reception.
“When you work in a place like this, it shows you who you are,” Louis says. “I thought I was a compassionate person, but I learned that I wasn’t. I had judgemental thinking, and coming from a developing country, I didn’t understand why there were poor people in Canada.”
Another lesson was learning to be empathetic. “Sometimes people project their anger towards you, but it’s not really about you. They might be dealing with mental illness, addiction, and other struggles.”
Louis runs a number of programs. Her role includes matching clients with individuals and organizations for Christmas sponsorship, organizing the school supplies backpack program, and dispensing emergency funds for clients who need help with things like power bills, oil, and prescriptions. Her favourite part of the job is meeting and helping new people. “Sometimes people just want a listening ear, and someone to talk to. There would be times when I would offer a prayer, just to uplift someone’s spirit. Some people’s spirits are broken because they’ve been through so much.”
Growing up, Louis didn’t even know what Canada was, but when she learned about it in her grade nine geography class, she knew she wanted to go there someday. Her mother had already taken the ultimate risk, making the dangerous crossing from Haiti to the Bahamas by boat when she was pregnant with Cynthia. “She could have died,” says Louis. “A single mom, doesn’t know a word of English.” But things slowly got better. “She met my step-dad when I was five years old. I could not have asked for a better dad.” Louis’s parents and six siblings are still in the Bahamas, and she visits when she can.
Louis credits her church family in New Minas with making her feel welcome when she first arrived in Wolfville. “They made me feel like a princess. They would feed me, they took care of me, and gave me a family away from home, and I want to be that for other people. A lot of the time if you’re hurting or you’re lonely you don’t have anyone to go to. But when you have a community, you build relationships and you feel good.”
This has inspired Louis to serve newcomers here in Halifax. After service each Sabbath, which is Saturday in the Seventh Day Adventist Church Louis attends, she serves lunch in her small house next door. If the weather is nice, they picnic outside in the park close by. She feeds her guests a variety of food, which might include beans and rice, curry chicken, and salad. She sometimes stays up till midnight the night before, making it all.
Louis watches from the back of the church to see who comes in, and then invites any new people to share a meal. “International students in particular. Now I don’t even invite people anymore, they just come,” she laughs. “I’ll have 25 to 30 people, and they would be sitting on the floor and staircase with plates on their laps. Nobody minds the crowd and having to climb over each other.”
On top of everything else she does, Louis helps international students move, and often provides a temporary place to stay. She has also volunteered for the Nova Scotia International Tattoo for five years, and for the Busker Festival, CIBC Run for the Cure, the Bluenose Marathon, the Prismatic Festival, and with the CNIB.
“I just like to do. I feel like if I’m not doing, I’m not being.”
When she thinks about her loyalty to Parker Street over the years, and why she stays, the answer is simple and resolute: “It’s work that is needed. We’re told we should help each other. I’m here to be Jesus’s hands and feet.”
And she’d love to be doing more, including pursuing a Master of Social Work degree. “I have so many ideas in my head! I would like to run my own social enterprise, maybe a place where people can go shower and do laundry. We could have clean clothes, nice shower stalls, toilets, soap, and toothbrushes.”
Louis tells every single international student she meets to stay in Canada. “I tell them to give it a try and that home will always be there. It’s harder to leave and then come back.”
Even though she wishes she could see her family more often, Louis has no regrets about staying. “I love it. My sister still sends me job offers from the Bahamas, and I could actually make more money there,” she says, smiling. “But it’s not always about pay, it’s what your heart wants. Success is about helping people.”