The images, interactions and impact remain seared in Chris Zownir’s ’92 mind --- more than 30 years later.
“She used to stand in front of the chapel during lunch. She approached me and introduced herself and said that she was starting this Out of the Cold program and she wanted me to be part of it,” remembers Zownir, recalling his first year at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) in 1987 and the late Sr. Susan Moran’s, OLM, CM, OSM request of him.
“I was a Grade 9 student, so I was a little bit shy and kind of timid and I nodded and said ‘that sounds great’. I finally said okay I’ll give it a shot,” he says.
It was a small spark that touched off a life-long relationship between Zownir and a program he says has positively affected just about every aspect of his life.
“The first time I went to the Out of the Cold (OOTC) program, I just absolutely fell in love with the whole premise of it,’ says Zownir.
Born at SMCS in 1987 --- the brainchild of Sr. Moran, a chaplain at the school then --- Out of the Cold began with a modest goal – to keep the homeless warm and fed.
It began as a lunch program operating out of a store-front on St. Clair Avenue West, near SMCS, before moving down the street to Holy Rosary Parish Hall --- offering soup, sandwiches, and shelter for those in need.
“The part I liked about it was the interaction with the guests,” recounts Zownir, whose volunteer duties as a student was to set up tables and chairs for OOTC guests.
“A lot of them were elderly and didn’t necessarily have many social outlets. From the very start I immediately was attracted to the community that it provided in addition to feeding people who were in need,” he says.
The other unique feature of OOTC says Zownir, was its complete openness.
“It had a very spiritual and welcoming community environment to it. It didn’t turn people away, even though it was in a church hall,” he says. It wasn’t restricted to a certain religion or a certain location. It allowed everyone to create their own version of it based on their location or resources or faith or anything else. That’s what our faith teaches us, to be open to welcoming and giving of ourselves to others. It really encompassed all of that.”
At its peak, OOTC operated out 30 locations. Today, it resides in 18 centres across the city representing a diversity of religions including: Anglican, United, Baptist, Jewish, Interfaith, and Catholic.
“The idea to allow people to run them independently without strict rules and regulations but more guidelines, I think has allowed for the success of it.”
During his four years at SMCS, Zownir went on to lead the OOTC Society. “My job then was to try and bring out more recruits, fellow students, to join us. I had a great group of friends and we really enjoyed being part of that.”
After attending university away, he returned to Toronto and to OOTC, volunteering again.
“It was amazing how the program had grown --- in terms of how many volunteers, how many guests were coming in. The guests used to call me the maitre d’, because I would be the person at the front greeting people and making sure they had a seat.”
“The success of the program is a collective effort from all the volunteers working together. Everyone had an important role.”
Chris Zownir ‘92
It was a responsibility Zownir took seriously.
“I had the benefit of going to restaurants and paying for great service,” he says. “I wanted to try and provide that same level of attention to our guests that came to OOTC, asking them, ‘are you done with your plate, may I take that from you’. Looking them in the eye when you were serving them. Just giving them that real sense of making them feel important for the moments they were there. And trying to teach the younger volunteers about the same level of service.”
Later, in the early 2000's, Zownir added another role to his enduring relationship with OOTC. For about a year, he was President of the Out of the Cold Foundation, which was set up to establish a higher level of funding to sustain a growing need.
THE DRIVING FORCE
At the heart of OOTC, a diminutive nun whose selflessness was only superseded by an insatiable appetite for helping the homeless.
“The open-mindedness, dedication and consistent action of Sr. Susan Moran over the years was most important,” says Zownir. “Without that, I don’t think Out of the Cold would be alive today. She took an idea and was so committed to the program and brought so many people into the program in such a loving and caring way, that that was genesis and the basis of the success of it,” he says.
Before she passed away in 2016, at age 78, Sr. Moran earned the Order of Canada and the Order of St. Michael. She flagged homelessness as a national emergency in the 1980’s, and helped thousands of people find the most basic of human needs.
St. Michael’s College School students get set to complete five Out of the Cold service initiatives this academic year.
It’s the first year Tyler Hill ’05, an English and Religion teacher at SMCS, is moderating the activity. “I did not realize the extent unto which people depend on a warm meal and place to sleep,” says Hill, “I have made connections with many people in the program and have witnessed the students grow as individuals because of it.”
Chris Zownir is proof positive of just that.
“It has carried to almost every aspect of my life,” says Zownir, “in terms of creating a sense of appreciation, a sense of community, of welcoming and giving.”
On Friday, April 5, 2019, St. Michael’s College School students and a teacher volunteer with the school’s Out of the Cold service initiative, now in its 32nd-year, will visit a church in Etobicoke to support the local community.