It's Tuesday afternoon, Seniors Day at Burlington's Compassion Society. Ironically, the first clients of the day are a young Latino couple with their newborn baby in tow.
As they peruse the racks of donated clothes, volunteers begin organizing the food selection. On this particular day, 22 “Hot-N-Ready” pizzas from Little Caesars await the organization's clients, along with cookies, crackers, pears and microwave popcorn.
It only takes about 10 minutes for the Plains Road storefront to fill up as patrons quietly make their way through the donated items.
“Hey babe!” says Mina Wahidi as she bursts through the front door. The Compassion Society's founder gets straight to work manning the food station.
It's easy to see how Wahidi has made such an impact on the community in a mere decade.
“I'm a kind person, a little pushy, but in a good way,” she says. “I think if you're going to give someone a loaf of bread, give them two. Give them what you'd like to get. We're constantly paying it forward,” the 42-year-old explains.
There's a lot of giving going on at Compassion Society's 1,700 sq-ft location, which gives free food, free clothes and community service referrals to the community's most vulnerable.
Wahidi's come a long way in 10 years. What began as a small clothing share run from her Nelson Co-op basement has ballooned into a staple in Burlington.
Every month about 400 people visit Compassion Society. Clients can pick up food weekly and once a month they can fill up a garbage bag of clothing, shoes, books, toys or small appliances from the organization's headquarters in Aldershot.
The items are free of charge and the service is free of judgment.
“We really treat people with dignity. There's a lot of judgment with poor people, and a thought that they brought it upon themselves,” says Wahidi. “The day we start treating people like we're better than they are is the day I lock the door and give away the key.”
But Burlington's former citizen of the year remains modest about her efforts.
“I did not discover poverty in Burlington, but I offered a solution for us to connect with one another,” she explains. Minutes later her friend Sebastian from Food for Life drops off a case of onions, which Wahidi graciously accepts.
“We never say no,” she says with a smile.
Compassion Society differentiates itself from other community outreach programs through its rapport with its client base.
“We build relationships with people,” says Wahidi. “When some of the seniors don't come around for a while, we'll call (their homes) to make sure they're OK.”
“We're very approachable and people ask us questions. It could be questions about credit card collections or people can tell us, “˜I've been on drugs for five years and today is the day I can't take it anymore',” says Wahidi, explaining that helping clients find assistance is one of the most important things they do.
She's no counselor, but Wahidi says she offers her clients a caring ear and hope in hopeless situations.
“Really, I try to listen. I talk a lot, but once in a while I'll shut up and listen.”
Now well-known in the community for her philanthropic work, Wahidi never imagined she'd be able to touch as many people as she has ““ around 5,000 by her count.
“If anyone ever believed in an underdog, that was me,” says the mother of three.
Growing up, Wahidi struggled with mental illness in her family. Determined to overcome the hardships she faced in her youth, Wahidi, with the help of a group of dedicated volunteers, has worked tirelessly to make Compassion Society what is it today.
“I'm proud of what I've done, I've worked damn hard for it.”
She describes Compassion Society as a mad house, but she wouldn't have it any other way.
“This is my dream.”
For more information about Compassion Society visit compassionsociety.net.