Victoria - As head chef and program supervisor of Souper Meals, one of several Island Health-funded programs for people living with mental health and/or substance use challenges, Renee Reese gets emotional when she talks about her friend Jodi, a former Souper Meals participant who has since recovered from mental health conditions. Reese has successfully shepherded many people through the program, but the connection she’s forged with Jodi over the years has brought her some of the greatest joy.
“Without Souper Meals, I wouldn’t have met this confident, amazing young woman,” she says. “She has enriched my life and I am very grateful for that.”
Souper Meals offers vocational training in the food services industry for people who have been connected to Island Health’s mental health system, while also providing nutritious, homemade and affordable frozen meals for people with mental health conditions to purchase and take home. Eight years ago, Jodi was struggling with mental health issues and was referred to Souper Meals upon the advice of a mental health professional. It’s a decision that she says changed her life in the most profound ways.
“When I walked into Souper Meals I didn’t think I had any strengths. The program gave me a platform in which to recover and that’s one of the beautiful things that this program does - it reveals your strengths,” she says. “Through Souper Meals, I allowed myself to excel, to learn new skills and get good at them, and then share those skills with others. Now, that is one of my passions in life. To share and give back.”
Giving back is just one of the many benefits participants receive from the Souper Meals program, which was launched 15 years ago.
“It’s a fun, welcoming, safe place where people have a sense of belonging and enjoy themselves. They are directly doing work that is going back and benefiting their community – it’s a pretty powerful thing,” explains Nicola Mark, Island Health Occupational Therapist with Mental Health and Substance Use and Residential Services. “The program gives some participants the opportunity to enter the workforce after gaining skills in the kitchen. It helps some to get up in the morning, be part of something, and have structure in their day. And it gives others that bit of a boost to join a community.”
That feeling of community has provided Souper Meals participant, Ross, with some stability, where he receives a stipend through Volunteer Victoria while learning a wide variety of kitchen skills and gaining food safety knowledge.
“I enjoy what I have made and it gives me a sense of pride and a sense of reward because you know you are focusing on your own mental wellness, while also inspiring others to do well in their own mental wellness,” he says. “This is a very good program. I look forward to coming here. When I am not here, I miss it.”
Ross’ fellow Souper Meal participant, Jewan, agrees. She sits at the sales desk where people purchase frozen meals and says that one of the greatest benefits of the program is the sense of confidence it has instilled within her.
“I just love it. I love meeting people and I like helping them,” she says. “Souper Meals has taught me that no matter what age you are, if you put your goal out there, you can accomplish it. The program has been so good to me - it’s a nice environment to work in.”
Chef Renee Reese is incredibly proud of the fun and supportive environment she has helped to foster – and never imagined after focusing the bulk of her career in restaurant kitchens that one day, she’d be helming a program like Souper Meals.
“I look at our interactions as a team, and my interactions with each individual, as almost sacred because it opens up opportunities in ways you wouldn’t expect,” she says proudly. “I see it all the time. With people buying food, with people coming in each day to work as part of a team - everyday, I witness moments where I think “Oh, wow, that was great.” It’s been very rewarding.”
Reese’s friend and former client, Jodi, has remained close to the program, acting as a peer mentor for participants, while modelling healthy behaviour and providing inspiration to others about coping with and recovering from mental health issues. She has also accepted employment with Island Health as a cook. She marvels at the difference Souper Meals has made in her life since she first walked through the doors of the program all those years ago.
“I’m so well that I can now be productive in society,” she says. “I’ve basically come full circle – it’s amazing.”