Every Tuesday night during the winter, two old friends, Melanie Cheskes and Marni Wolf, spend some time together and time with those less fortunate than themselves.
And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Cheskes, 26, and Wolf, 24, volunteer their time with the Out of the Cold program, an Ontario-wide program that provides a warm meal, a welcoming environment, clothes and a bed for those in need.
But what is different about the Out of the Cold program that Cheskes and Wolf volunteer with – jointly run by Beth Sholom Synagogue and Beth Tzedec Congregation each Tuesday until the end of March – is that since last year, an art program has been put in place.
Cheskes and Wolf, childhood friends who decided to become involved with the art program, said they have bonded with the artists who stop in.
“It’s become a commitment to the people. At the end of every week, they tell me they look forward to it, and I look forward to it,” Cheskes said.
“They’re so appreciative that you’re there, and it’s nice to feel that way. It’s a very warm and peaceful atmosphere amidst the chaos of whatever else is going on outside. It’s a nice little break from life.”
The success of the arts program makes Wolf and Cheskes believe it could bear similar results at other Out of the Cold programs.
“There’s so much opportunity for growth,” Cheskes said.
In late 2009, volunteers at Beth Sholom asked Cheskes if she would be interested in volunteering two hours a week to run the arts program that was a year old. The synagogue is close to her home, and Cheskes said the idea caught her attention.
“There was really no reason to say no,” she said.
She started with about three participants. Now, there are 15 regulars and new people participate all the time.
“As I started going to do art with the participants every week, I realized this was a really beautiful program, and the participants were doing something special… and we could take this further,” Cheskes said.
In an effort to raise money for both the Out of the Cold program and the people who benefit from it, they decided to organize an art show to present the work created by the program participants.
The plan was to have 80 per cent of the proceeds go to the artists and the remaining 20 per cent to the program, but the artists would hear none of it. They wanted all the funds to go to the program.
Last year, the first art show raised more than $4,000.
“People that came were touched by the artwork,” Cheskes said. “They were surprised that these people were so poor.”
Many attendees, Cheskes said, were confused about why some artists didn’t have more opportunities for work. Many have had opportunities for work presented to them, Cheskes said, but mental health issues have stepped in the way.
“Most of them struggle with mental issues. Some are more obvious than others,” Cheskes said.
This year’s art show is scheduled for April 10, and the art will remain on display at Beth Sholom until April 15.
“It’s just a way to raise awareness and raise money for the program,” Cheskes said.
Each painting will be sold for $35, and Elgin Picture & Frame on Dupont Street is matting paintings for free to give the artwork a professional look, Cheskes said.
“That is pretty wonderful and a huge help,” she said.
The group of artists that works with Cheskes and Wolf ranges in age from a high school girl who comes in with her mother to a man in his 60s.
When Wolf and Cheskes speak of their group of artists, you can tell immediately that they are pleasantly surprised each week with their artistic skills.
Take Freddie, one artist who Wolf said attracts the attention of others in the program. A formally trained artist, Freddie grew up in El Salvador. People watch him paint, but he doesn’t notice them, Wolf said, because he’s focused on depicting the Mayan folklore in his head.
“He’ll sit there and talk to you about the story for 20 minutes,” Wolf said.
“You can see when he paints that he is completely and utterly absorbed… He’s just clearly extremely talented.”
Freddie helps with the setup and clean up of the arts table, and has also taken on the role of teacher, helping others who have just started and are not as sure of their skills.
Then there’s Michael, the man who is there to make art and socialize. Cheskes said Michael, who is in his 30s, helps the volunteers in handing out clothes and food to all those coming in the door and makes sure the art program is organized and artists have everything they need.
When he sits down to draw, he produces caricatures of men with top hats and spectacles, Wolf said.
“You can see him thinking and laughing at what he’s drawing. He’s his own entertainment. You can see how much he loves it.”
It’s this attachment and sense of community that Wolf and Cheskes have built with their fellow artists that makes them believe they will be back with the program when it starts again next winter.
“There’s such a warm, genuine feeling from a lot of the people,” Wolf said. “How could you not go back to that?”
For more information, visit www.bethsholom.net/out-of-the-cold.htm.