By ROSALYN ROY
– with files from René J. Roy
PORT AUX BASQUES – It’s Monday night, Feb. 22 and the transport trailers are slowly rolling, one by one, into the parking lot of the shuttered Visitor Information Centre. Waiting for them to come to a complete stop, a small group of Salvation Army volunteers is huddled safely against the bitter winds of winter and COVID-19, wearing warm hats, gloves, face masks and shields.
Overseeing the operation is Maurice Collins. It’s not the first time he and his little group of Salvation Army volunteers have stepped in to help transport drivers. They say they are just doing their part by offering up a free, hot meal and a friendly word or two to the truckers who continue to serve the province, bringing in food, medication and other essentials.
The Salvation Army has provided this service before, and Collins says they were ready and happy to help out when asked once again.
“The call came from Andrew Parsons, through John Haggie,” says Collins. “That came down Thursday night (Feb. 18).”
There are 10 volunteers on the team tonight, including Melva and Bert Osmond and Darlene Collier. Port aux Basques Mayor John Spencer is a certified flag person and busy directing truckers in off the highway.
Those who aren’t working the lot are busy over at the Salvation Army’s commercial kitchen, cooking up the roast turkey breast and vegetables and prepping the plates. It then gets brought over the food truck, which drove up from St. John’s on Saturday. It keeps the meals fresh until they are served. The food is filling and hot, and appears to be deeply appreciated.
Doug Spence rolls up in huge white Clarke’s truck, and a volunteer stretches up to quickly hand him supper through the open driver’s window. He’s bound for Corner Brook tonight, headed back now that the ferry is cancelled, and he heard at Tim Horton’s this morning that the hot meal service was starting up again. He used to partake regularly last time around too.
“It was very, very convenient. We really enjoyed it. We appreciated it, because it was hard to get hot meals anywhere for truckers,” he shouts above the wind and the roar of his engine.
Spence, who has been driving for just over five years, is one of about 40 drivers the Salvation Army feeds this night. The last time around, they usually saw between 50 to 60 drivers, but tonight the boat isn’t sailing because of the storm so the number is down a bit.
“Some of them said ‘Oh so glad to see you back’. They’re really appreciative that we’re there,” says Collins.
Collins also notes that residents of the Southwest coast have also jumped in to help out via donations, but the Salvation Army is operating as part of the province’s emergency disaster plan. Feeding the truckers is a joint effort between the provincial government, Marine Atlantic and the Salvation Army.
Around noon, Collins gets a text advising him how many vehicles are crossing. Past experience means he can usually predict quite well how many guests to expect for supper. The traffic tends to be a bit lighter on the weekends.
“It’s not a guess anymore. It’s education,” says Collins.
Meals are usually served between 6:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., though they tweak as necessary. Depending on the weather, the ferry might be a bit late or a bit early. It doesn’t matter. They’ll stay out until the last trucker is fed.
He’s not sure if Marine Atlantic still announces the service to drivers during the crossing, but Collins is a member of the Newfoundland Truckers page on Facebook and posted to get the word out. The last time he checked the post had well over 1,200 shares and 8,000 views.
The volunteers may have to brave more blustery nights for a while yet, likely at least until the lockdown lifts and the restaurants re-open.
“Until the government tells us we’re not needed. We’re here to do whatever we can for the truckers. They are our lifeline, and not being able to get hot meals is definitely of concern, and we need to make sure that they’re taken care of,” says Collins.