LGBTQ+ Newcomer Cooking Program
In July 2013, Ken Olsen began volunteering in the LGBTQ+ Newcomer Program at Access Alliance. At the time, there were only six participants in the basement of Access Point on Danforth. Ken had been introduced to former Community Health Worker LGBTQ+ Newcomer Programs, Ranjith Kulatilake, through a friend. Ranjith’s passion and enthusiasm inspired Ken to volunteer. He felt that as a gay senior citizen he could contribute time and energy and at the same time, learn from LGBTQ+ newcomers about the issues they had faced. Ken recalls Ranjith cautioning him about his presence as a white person in that space, especially how his white privilege might be intimidating to the group. Ken was careful not to occupy a lot of “space” but instead acted as an ally, which he reflects was a learning curve.
Ken quickly became helpful in setting up tables, chairs and space for the program’s evening presentations as well as welcoming people to the program. Ken remembers that Ranjith talked him into doing a presentation about his personal history. Ken enjoyed sharing the story of his 47-year relationship with his partner with the group.
In 2014, the program continued to grow in popularity with approximately 20 participants weekly. It became obvious that there was a necessity for a warm meal and TTC tokens for the participants as the majority were refugee claimants, without income or stable housing. Ken and his partner were able to support the program with financial donations, along with other donors. Ranjith was able to negotiate a special price on chicken biriyani from a local restaurant and Ken would pick up the order along with a couple of peer volunteers. Eventually, Ken developed an insulated metal cart for Access Alliance, specifically to make it possible for one person to transport the hot food, even through ice and snow.
The program continued to grow and by 2017, there were over 40 regular participants. Unfortunately, the cost of feeding participants became unsustainable. With a limited budget and Ranjith’s help, Ken was able to organize a weekly cooking program to prepare hot dinners for the program participants. He would start early in the day each week to purchase the food, deliver it to Access Alliance, then lead the volunteer cooking team with whichever LGBTQ+ Newcomer volunteers would show up to cook. He would always have fun with them making it all come together. With a weekly budget of $70, they would prepare six different nutritious dishes, and feed up to 70 people.
Ken made a significant and sustained contribution to the LGBTQ+ Newcomer Program at Access Alliance and was a pioneer in the development in the LGBTQ+ Cooking Together program. In April 2018, Ken was awarded the June Callwood Award from the Ontario Government for Outstanding achievement in Volunteerism for the incredible work he did every week, always with a smile on his face and a gentle and kind demeanour. His contribution was valued and he was relied on by staff and program participants alike. Eventually the commute from his home in Barrie became to be too much of a challenge and Ken retired from volunteering in 2019. He remains a friend of Access Alliance and ally of the LGBTQ+ Newcomers. His legacy continues as the LGBTQ+ Newcomer Cooking Together Program is led by two peers who used to support him in the kitchen.