Niagara-on-the-Lake's Farmworker Hub is a place for people to come together.
For seasonal workers, it's where they can get the things they need — clothes, warm gloves and boots, food, toiletries, kitchen basics like utensils and pots and pans. And through a partnership with Quest Health, it's also a lifeline that gives them access to free health care, without needing a Canadian health card.
But it's also a connected community, one that allows people to stay in touch with each other and face issues together.
It's a place where people who aren't farmworkers can volunteer their time for the good of the community, to help out the people who plant and tend and pick the food that ends up in our grocery stores.
A visibly proud Julia Buxton-Cox, the founder of the hub, was excited when it opened for the season Sunday, in a new location inside Cornerstone Community Church.
She was busy sorting through hundreds of boxes of boots donated to the shelter by Mister Safety Shoes, as farmworkers like Steve Wallace and Orville Bronn picked up some items. Buxton-Cox is preparing for a busy season, having welcomed more than 1,900 workers through the door last year during the pandemic.
She said the sentiments she's hearing are that workers are happy and grateful to see the hub open again. And while the items the hub offers do mean a lot to them, it's also about having a place to gather together.
“I think the hub serves as a hub not just for farmworkers to come and get goods, it serves as a hub for a community. To bring all of us together, because this whole community, we're dealing with issues of racism and poverty and movements like Black Lives Matter. People are becoming aware of more than what's outside their little circle. And so this brings everybody together to help and just be a community,” she said.
And the hub isn't alone: it has partners all across the community, people such as Jane Andres, whom Buxton-Cox said distributed 600 welcome kits to farmers so when they arrive the workers have a meal and some of the basics right off the bat.
“When they get up here after a couple of days of travelling, they've got warm socks, some hot soup, something on their bunk waiting for them when they get here. So, it's just all a community being a community.”
Other partners include Bikes for Farmworkers, Newark Neighbours, Gateway Community Church and the Niagara Falls soup kitchen.
Quest Health is also a big partner, operating a clinic for workers starting on Sundays in April.
“So if workers can't get access to a doctor during the week, when they're working, if they need prescription refills, they need any sort of confidential health care, they can come to Quest and they take care of them,” Buxton-Cox said.
Moises Vasquez, of Quest, was at the hub Sunday. Quest has been operating in NOTL for “a long time,” he said and this will be the third year at Cornerstone Church.
There's a wide variety of needs for farmworkers, everything from check-ups, muscle pain and seasonal allergies to primary care for chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.
“”We try to make sure they receive the care they need while they are here. And once they're back, we tend to help them with that transition, like providing a letter for them to follow up with a doctor back home. And vice versa. When they come in, they provide some papers for us to follow up here.”
Workers don't need a health card to access the care, which is free and confidential. However, right now it's only offered on weekends, Vasquez said.
The program is run by volunteer physicians from Brock and McMaster universities. Services are in Spanish and English with the help of volunteers from various churches.
“Our program relies a lot on the great support that we receive from our volunteers and we're really grateful and blessed to have those volunteers,” Vasquez said.
Buxton-Cox said the most popular items with the workers now are winter supplies.
“Number one, winter coats, boots, pots and pans, and hoodies — the guys and girls like to have that warm hoodie when they're out in the field.”
Steve Wallace, a Jamaican farmworker with Meyers Fruit Farms, said being able to pick up some essentials is really helpful.
“This means big, big big,” he says. “These people do lots of things for us. And it's well appreciated.”
He said having the essential items helps things “make sense,” but the health care has been especially important for him.
Wallace has been coming to NOTL for 19 years to work at Meyers and helps harvest peaches, grapes and flowers.
Over the day, about 30 workers stopped in to pick up items. There's a limit of three each, but it's not too strict. And it doesn't include small basics like toilet paper or towels.
The place is well-stocked, but is always looking for items to help keep it that way.
Buxton-Cox said most of the items are donated to the hub through her Buy Nothing NOTL Facebook group, where people give away gently used items.
The rent was also “graciously” paid by Kairos Canada, a social agency and partner of the hub that received a federal grant to help support temporary foreign workers. That grant runs out at the end of March, but Buxton-Cox said there are some other community partners and organizations that are going to be helping to cover the rent, too.
“This whole thing is becoming a really big tipping point in the community. People are becoming more aware of the people who pick our food and provide the food on our plates. So it's up to us to be able to say thanks and give back.”
Buxton-Cox said the hub is always looking for volunteers and anyone interested can visit thehubnotl.ca to find out how to sign up.
The hub is open Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to noon and Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m. during spring. Plans are to open Thursday nights in summer when it's daylight longer, so it's safe for the workers, who mostly ride their bikes to the hub.