City Living: Christmas dinner comes early at Union Gospel Mission

If you’d told Dave Boehm a few years ago that he would one day be volunteering as a greeter for the Union Gospel Mission’s 73rd annual Christmas Dinner last Saturday, he would’ve laughed in your face.

Boehm was a functioning alcoholic who only drank on weekends through a deal he made with Robbie, his beloved wife of 25 years. But when she died in 1995, Boehm’s problem grew to a 40-pounder-a-day one.

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“She died of cancer and I started drinking more,” he said. “Then a year later my sister died of cancer and I started drinking more. Then my uncle died of — guess what?! And I started drinking more.

“At that point, I hated everybody, hated everything. Got a gun, went down to the Fraser River and took a bottle of rye with me. Pulled the trigger and... nothing. It’d jammed. Well, I thought, I’ll just drink myself to death.”

He gave it his all until two-and-a-half years ago when the mess of a man walked into the Union Gospel Mission in the Downtown Eastside, looking for a cup of coffee. Somebody mentioned the alcohol and drug recovery program and Boehm asked, jokingly, how many applications there were. A huge stack, he was told.

“OK, great! Sign me up! But I’m still going to the liquor store,” he remembers saying. But the Union Gospel Mission people called him on his cheeky bluff and, 45 minutes later, the none-too-pleased Boehm landed himself in the program.

“For the first month, I tried to escape,” he said. “But I couldn’t even find my room, and it was right by the elevator. That’s how screwed up my brain was.”

The challenges rolled in like waves. Four months into the six-month program, Boehm suffered a stroke, which put him in a wheelchair.

Then he found out about the cancer — all five kinds of it. He was given six months to live, two-and-a-half years ago.

“Now, I just want to give back,” he said between smiling and giving the thumbs up to practically everybody in the bustling lobby of the Union Gospel Mission. “I volunteer whenever they want me, wherever they want me. I get to be the greeter, and that means I don’t have to stand out in the cold, yay!”

People from the community lined up in -6 C temperatures for the free Christmas dinner at the Downtown Eastside location of the Union Gospel Mission (meals were also being served at its Women’s and Family Centre on East Cordova as well as its New Westminster location).

About three thousand plates of food were served to the hungry during the course of the day, which included 3,500 pounds of turkey, 800 pounds of mashed potatoes and 675 cherry pies.

The Christmas dinner once was traditionally served on Christmas Day but, over time, other groups in the neighbourhood started offering dinner.

So the Union Gospel Mission decided it would be best to offer a meal on a different day, so people wouldn’t have to pick and choose, said the mission’s Keela Keeping, adding that it also doesn’t spread the 200 volunteers too thin.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Keeping said. “We have a CEO on one side, and somebody who was homeless on the other, working together.”

For Boehm, he’s especially appreciative as this will be the first Christmas in the last couple of years he won’t spend in the hospital.

“I ended up with a new chance.”

The United Gospel Mission hosts a second Christmas Dinner, this time partnering up with Glowbal Collection Restaurants Dec. 17, at 3 p.m.

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