Everyone by now has heard about the “One for James” social media campaign that went viral earlier this week, but many people don’t know about a pay-it-forward program that the Speak Easy Cafe in downtown Peterborough has been running for the past year.
“Buy One for James” was begun by Peterborough resident Jason Alexander in honour of his late friend James Bidgood, who died in an accident in February and left behind his wife and three children. James was known for regularly buying a coffee for the next person in line at Tim Horton’s. After the social media campaign vent viral, people across Canada and then across the world started buying coffee for other people — a simple and inexpensive random act of kindness.
At the Speak Easy Cafe (362 George St. N., Peterborough), owner Vickie Karikas has been doing something similar since 2014. In the “Suspended Meal Program,” customers can donate $5 for a food item or $1.75 for a beverage. A person in need can then come to the restaurant and get a meal or drink that’s already been paid for by someone else.
When a customer makes a donation, restaurant staff record it on a chalkboard inside the restaurant and and also mark it on a chalkboard outside the restaurant — so people in need can see how many meals and drinks are available for the day.
“We do it every day,” Vickie says in an interview with Wei Chen of CBC Radio’s Ontario Morning. “We’ve been doing the program for the better part of a year now.”
Vickie began the program when she realized that giving money to people in need, homeless or otherwise, might not necessarily be the best way to help them.
“I was helping a gentleman who’s very well known in the downtown area and I was giving him money every day,” Vickie says. “I realized I wasn’t benefiting him in any way, so I started to give him food. He would come in and get a coffee and he would get a sandwich if he wanted.”
Some of the restaurant’s customers noticed what Vickie was doing and offered to help, which led to the Suspended Meal Program.
The program is also a way to encourage people to help others, either because they don’t carry cash or are uncomfortable handing it to people on the street. Instead of giving cash, they can make a donation at the Speak Easy Cafe and direct people there for a free meal.
“People don’t always feel comfortable giving money but they still want to do a good deed,” Vickie explains.
After the program got underway, word quickly spread among those living on the street. Since the program began, Vickie estimates that there have been 1,200 donations for people in need. This month alone, 113 items have been donated.
“We try to stay as transparent as possible,” Vickie says.
Vickie appreciates that people in need may feel singled out if they enter the restaurant and ask for a free meal in front of paying customers. To help avoid any stigma, customer orders under the Suspended Meal Program are done through a side door directly into the kitchen. People wanting to take advantage of the program ring a bell to make their order.
“It’s very private and it works really well that way,” Vickie says. “Our staff are amazing because they really do all the work for the program. The customers are awesome because they’re the ones that contribute to the program.”
All photos courtesy of Vickie Karikas