Discovering a sense of community

Katherina Baranova and her husband walking

By Jennifer Parraga, BA’93

This past summer, the guests at medical student Katherina Baranova’s wedding were asked to support one of four charities, including the Tuesday Evening Meal at Rowntree Memorial United Church, rather than bring gifts. Not surprising, given that the outreach program has been a constant in Baranova’s life for the past six years.

It was during her third year at Western University that Baranova first heard about the need for volunteers at Rowntree from one of her Biochemistry professors. By that time in her undergraduate studies, she’d developed confidence in managing the demands of the BMSc program and was well oriented to the campus, the city and all that came with being a student.

What was missing though was the feeling of being part of something bigger than herself and being connected to a community. Growing up in Toronto, Baranova was an active volunteer that thrived on giving back and the human connections voluntarism offered.

She initially signed up for a few shifts at Rowntree. Week after week, she returned for shifts and volunteered during the summer while working in a lab on campus. She continued to volunteer through her undergraduate and medical school studies, and soon was accompanied by her then-boyfriend and now-husband Ben Shirley.

“I rediscovered the sense of community that was missing from my life,” she said.

The Tuesday Evening Meal began in 1996. At the time, it was hosted at Robinson United Church. After serving nearly 50,000 meals, the community outreach program was moved to Rowntree, where it’s been operating since 2010.

Once a week, hundreds of Londoners are greeted with a meal at Rowntree, as well as some goodwill, conversation and kindness. It’s thanks to volunteers and community donors that the Meal has continued.

Baranova says she has done just about every role at the Tuesday Evening Meal. She started as a greeter, welcoming and chatting with guests while serving beverages; she’s done dishes, been part of clean up and made sure the guests were comfortable and received what they needed.

Her support has gone a long way at Rowntree.

“Katherina and her husband Ben have been a huge help to our Tuesday Evening Meal,” said Joanne Hamilton, Coordinator. “Their wonderful personalities combined with their strong work ethic have made them very welcome in our kitchen. They fit in with everyone and we are glad to have them.”

Each shift served up lessons for Baranova – many of which she was able to take with her through her medical school studies. It was during her clerkship that she realized how her treasured conversations with volunteers and guests gave her invaluable knowledge that she could use to enrich her care of the patients she interacted with regularly.

During the past few years, she has come to know the dedicated organizers and volunteers who work tirelessly to ensure that the services offered through Rowntree continue. She’s also come to appreciate the giving spirit that exists in London that is needed to help those who are struggling to find food and shelter on an ongoing basis.

Along the way, she’s realized just how much she values volunteering as a mainstay in her life.

“I realized early on how much happier I was after volunteering. It felt good to do the work with the other volunteers and to give back. I’ve been lucky most of my life and because of that, I feel like I have a duty to give back in time, money and kindness,” she said.

Baranova and Shirley carried that sentiment with them as they planned their wedding.

“We felt like we had everything we needed,” Baranova said. “We wanted to use our celebration as an opportunity to give back and encourage others to do so.”

Since 2010, it’s estimated that members of the Schulich Medicine & Dentistry family have volunteered nearly 1,200 shifts at Rowntree. If you are interested in getting involved with the Tuesday Evening Meal, you can contact Derek McLachlin or visit Rowntree’s website.