The inspirational holiday story of the woman who brought Meals on Wheels to Canada.
Tim Ford, December 21, 2022 // Brantford, OntarioA look back at Elsie Matthews hard at work in our community. Stock photo.
Imagine a cold Brantford, on a November afternoon in 1963. Our downtown would have been buzzing with throngs of Brantfordian’s trampling down the slushy sidewalks of Colborne Street. Folks would have been hustling from store to store, trying to get a head start on their Christmas shopping and attempting to cross a few names off the ever-growing Christmas list they had assembled. Picture a cut-out of the Coca-Cola Santa winking and cheers’ing his delicious cold Coke, standing in the doorway of the corner market on King Street, as cash registers chimed like silver bells into the streets.
A few blocks west, local resident Elsie Matthews flipped up the collar of her jacket, trying to shield the freezing rain from her face. She walked away from the bustle of Colborne’s Christmas commerce and onto the calming quiet of William Street. She stopped at the corner of William and Church Street and climbed the steps of a grand manor that was built in 1894 for a wealthy Industrialist, but at that time it was being occupied by the local Red Cross. Elsie politely asked for an ear and presented a simple but noble proposal that she drew inspiration from when travelling through England.
While overseas in a newly post-WWII Britain, she witnessed a program they had developed where they brought warm meals to people in need. This was due to the blitz and the fact that it had destroyed many homes and people did not have kitchens to cook from. When she observed this, it made her think of the members in her own community that could use a helping hand as well. Elsie knew there were people in our town struggling, especially through the holidays, and wanted to make a difference in any way she could.
Knowing what a hardy meal could do to improve a person’s well-being, she passionately illustrated her plan to cook and personally deliver dinners for seniors throughout the community. Along with the meal, they would get some much-needed support and company as the food was being dropped off. The members of the Red Cross agreed to the proposition. They offered their kitchen, a station wagon for drop-offs, and began local food drives to help with Elsie’s initiative. This gave Elsie everything she needed to establish the very first ‘Meals on Wheels’ in Canada.
That holiday season, twelve seniors would reach out for help. Each week, Elsie, along with her gang of volunteers, loaded up the wagon and dropped off the dinners they cooked themselves, offering a nice meal and conversation to those who needed it. The program became so needed that they began to offer their services to disabled and lower income families in the area, also giving aid to those often-overlooked communities. Elsie’s selfless ambition to simply give a
warm meal to those who needed one, quickly encouraged and inspired those around her.
Vintage logo of Meals On Wheels. Stock photo.
It wasn’t long after Elsie launched her program that neighbouring towns followed her initiative and began their own chapters of Meals on Wheels. Today, there are 181 communities in Ontario alone that offer this service. According to The Red Cross, the program wheeled over 100,000 meals across Canada in 2021.
Elsie probably didn’t realise how important that walk she made down William Street was on that cold November day in 1963, but the profound impact of her endeavour is undeniable. Elsie Matthews is an excellent example of that Dickensian holiday spirit so often talked about around this time of year, yet her name is almost never mentioned. It was a first for Canada, and it happened in our little community.
It was difficult to research this important story, as there is little information about Elsie, except for brief mentions in a few articles online. While her accomplishments should be lauded, it's a double-edged sword. The fact that Meals on Wheels is being used throughout most towns across the country, now more than ever, proves there is still so much work that needs to be done in our communities.
Maclean’s magazine reported at the end of last year, demand for the service was up 60% from the previous year in Ontario and continues to struggle with donations and funding present day. With higher demand for Meal on Wheels, the organization struggles with a lack of volunteers and drivers, a key component to the success of the program.
The grand manor on William and Church St. in Brantford, Ontario. Stock photo.
The grand manor on William and Church St. became too big and cumbersome for the Red Cross and they moved their operations to 446 Grey St, where they still run the Meals on Wheels program today.
Elsie Matthews saw the power of community aid and was inspired. Her story proves what is possible even in a small, sometimes forgotten town. The actions of one person can ripple throughout a nation.
For more information on how you can help, please contact your local Red Cross at (519) 753-4189 or on redcross.caSources
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Ford is freelance hobbyist who lives in his twelfth home in Brantford, Ontario…so…yeah, he knows a thing or two about aluminum siding.
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