This van does not appear to be a lot, but it surely’s the guts of a Montreal grocery financial institution

It rusts and deteriorates day by day, but make no mistake: this 2007 GMC Savana is the unsung hero of the tablet of the Benedict Labre House in Saint-Henri.

In honor of its resilience, the vehicle is affectionately nicknamed: Sweet Baby.

For years, staff and volunteers have been piling up at Sweet Baby several times a week to pick them up in Moisson Montréal to help them prepare food baskets for their customers. The fact that the blackboard cannot survive without its creaking vehicle illustrates the far-reaching struggle that often goes hand in hand with helping the needy.

The van is a mess. The brakes are as good as done and the transmission could go at any moment.

“If you look down, you can see the floor in parts of the van that is reminiscent of The Flintstones,” said Francine Nadler, clinical coordinator at Benedict Labre House.

Every trip could be Sweet Baby’s last, which is why Nadler developed a kind of superstitious ritual before starting the engine.

André Giroux started volunteering at Benedict Labre House earlier this year. (Antoni Nerestant / CBC)

“I just got in the van and said, ‘Ok, sweet baby, I know you can,'” she said. “I would tap the dashboard affectionately and encourage them, and I would just let them know that I believe in them.”

It’s only a matter of time before Sweet Baby is finally parked. But it has given Benedict Labre House one final boost, which lived up to the occasion during the pandemic as the demand for food baskets skyrocketed.

“It is the reason that we can distribute between 150 and 200 food baskets per week to families in the southwest,” says Nadler. “Despite all the things that are falling apart about her, she is a hardworking lady and just keeps going.”

Nadler says Sweet Baby’s predicament gives a glimpse into the day-to-day reality of many nonprofits: a lot of people depend on them, but budgets are limited so they do their best with what they have.

“We are basically working with very little money and very little support and we have to get by with what we have,” she said. “It’s not just our organization, it’s most organizations that really survive on these very, very tight budgets.”

Sweet Baby’s crumbling state is a by-product of these limited resources. Much has been done to keep the van running for as long as possible.

Countdown to Sweet Baby’s last ride

This is where André Giroux comes in.

He started volunteering just days before the pandemic began and took action when he discovered that corrosion had destroyed the container that held the van’s windshield washer fluid.

Giroux decided to improvise a solution. He placed a container of fluid on the console next to the driver’s seat and connected it to a pump and a clear tube long enough to reach through the side window and be properly aligned.

André Giroux, a volunteer at Tafel, set up this windscreen washer to ensure that the van still drives reasonably safely. (Antoni Nerestant / CBC)

“I had to make a MacGyver out of myself to fix it,” said Giroux, who knew there wasn’t much more that could be done to save the vehicle.

“We either take it to the dump or try to drive it a few more kilometers.”

Nadler says her group reached out to Spender in hopes of buying a new van that would keep the board going for a long time.

“I feel sad sometimes when I look at her. I think, ‘Wow, what a terrible ending’. We literally drove you to your death,” she said. “We’ll be very grateful to her until her last day, and then I hope that in the very, very near future, Sweet Baby 2.0 is coming.”

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