Sophie Hart has lived in Montreal’s Milton Parc neighborhood, adjacent to the downtown McGill campus, for four years. And for four years, she has felt like she should be doing more to help the unhoused individuals living on Milton Parc’s streets.
Then came the pandemic.
With significant reductions in vital social services and greater economic strife causing even more hardship for those in need, Hart – who will complete her degree this year in Art History and Indigenous Studies – took action. She began asking her unhoused neighbours, many of whom are Indigenous, what they needed. Their responses led her to create Meals for Milton Parc (M4MP), a student-led, community-based organization that seeks to support the individuals of Milton-Parc by providing meals and care packages. Since its founding in October 2020, the organization has consistently delivered three meals per week to Milton-Parc residents, as well as care packages every two weeks.
M4MP relies on monetary donations as well as donations of physical goods, including fresh food, public transit passes, pens and paper, hygiene products, and – since 2020 – masks, wipes and hand sanitizer. “Most people don’t think about how limited you are if you don’t have a mask,” says Hart. “You can’t go into a store to buy food. You can’t board a bus. You can’t go inside at all. We don’t realize this when we have the resources to buy masks.”
In addition to providing food and essential supplies to Milton-Parc residents in need, M4MP has an educational objective. Prospective volunteers are required to participate in a training session that contextualizes urban housing struggles in Canadian colonialism. But even for those not directly affiliated with M4MP, Hart hopes the initiative will at least provide a connection for McGill students to the community around them and raise awareness about the disproportionately high number of unhoused people in Montreal who are Indigenous.
Hart has been involved with several community groups devoted to helping Indigenous peoples in Montreal. In 2019 and 2020, she helped facilitate a free summer camp, sponsored by the organization Native Montreal, for urban Indigenous children. The Indigenous educators working at the camp created engaging cultural, language and knowledge activities that were eye-opening for Hart. “These two summers taught me an extensive amount about the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples and the vast Indigenous cultures present in our country.”
She is currently working as a community intervention worker at the Mont-Royal warming tent for unhoused Indigenous individuals, an initiative funded through Exeko, a Montreal-based non-profit aimed at fostering social inclusion through creativity, art and cultural recognition.
As is critical for community-led organizations, M4MP does not exist in a vacuum. Instead, it partners with like-minded local organizations, including the Indigenous Street Project, The Open Door, and Solidarité Milton-Parc, to expand the reach of its services. Just as these groups have in many ways paved the way for M4MP to be successful, Hart hopes her organization will extend beyond her time at McGill and continue to do meaningful work for the people of Milton-Parc. M4MP boasts an extensive team of student officers and coordinators who manage every piece of the puzzle, from volunteer recruitment and training to fundraising and social media marketing.
Though M4MP has only existed for a few months, it has steadily gained traction and followers. As of January 2021, the group counts more than 150 student, young professional and neighbourhood volunteers. This includes the McGill Men’s Soccer team.
The cancellation of their Fall 2020 season was a tough pill for the Men’s Soccer Team to swallow. “When you train for nine months to play competitively for just three months, it’s pretty disappointing to see your season disappear,” says Francesco Pisegna, third-year goalkeeper and neuroscience major. Instead of wallowing in their loss, the team shifted its focus from representing McGill on the field to making a difference off the pitch.
The Redbirds have a track record of successful fundraising campaigns, including on McGill’s crowdfunding platform, Seeds of Change. With support from alumni, family and friends, they have raised funds in past years for essential items such as apparel, training equipment and travel subsidies. But the players are equally committed to raising money to giving back to the local community.
“The team has been active in community outreach for many years,” says Coach Marc Mounicot. “But this year, with our season cut short, we decided to use the funds we’ve raised for something different. Like many others, we wanted to find a way to help.”
While their intended community project – empowering Montreal youth through sport – was put on hold due to the pandemic, the team was committed to finding an alternative cause that was COVID-safe and would have an immediate impact. Then third-year goalkeeper Chris Cinelli-Faia caught word of a newly formed student-led group: Meals for Milton-Parc. He reached out to founder Sophie Hart to see how the team could contribute to the organization’s efforts. “Sophie has inspired us since the beginning,” says Cinelli-Faia. “She is so passionate about what she’s doing for Milton-Parc. We knew we wanted to support those efforts and help the people in need there.”
Left to right: Francesco Pisegna, Sophie Hart, and Chris Cinelli-Faia.
Joining forces with Meals for Milton-Parc was a decision embraced by all members of the team. From freshmen to fifth-year seniors, the athletes seized the opportunity to do good but also to be together while following social distancing guidelines. “Being on a sports team is a shared experience. It was amazing to see everyone get on board for this initiative, despite being spread across different countries and continents,” says Pisegna.
Pisegna, Cinelli-Faia and fifth-year midfielder Ramdane Tafer, all of whom are currently in Montreal, began asking teammates to contribute items that Hart said were needed most, including winter clothing and accessories, underwear and toiletries. Players living abroad – some of whom are freshmen who have never even stepped foot on McGill’s campus – wired money to those in Canada, who then picked up additional supplies to donate to M4MP. “Having everyone rally together for this was incredible,” says Pisegna.
The Redbirds maintain that compared to what Hart has done to support the unhoused in Milton-Parc, their role has been minor. “She is truly the hero in this story, when it comes to creating a community-led organization and gathering volunteers to make life better for the people many students share a neighbourhood with,” says Cinelli-Faia.
While the team hopes to be able to move forward in the near future with its youth outreach initiative, the athletes are grateful to have found a way to give back at this challenging time. “We want to leave a legacy of McGill student-athletes – not just soccer players – giving back to a neighbourhood that has been such a foundational part of our university experience,” says Pisegna. “But the most important thing is that we remember how fortunate we are, and that we act on that by trying to make a difference.”
Read more about some of McGill's everyday heroes, and learn how to support the next generation of heroes on McGill24.