For 76 years, Walter Adams of Esquimalt has lived a good life and achieved good things, without fuss.
But now a fuss is being made over him. Recently, he was named Victoria’s 2012 Unsung Hero because of his volunteer work for the Rainbow Kitchen, a non-profit society providing a place for people from all walks of life and circumstances to come and share a meal together. Each weekday, Walter quietly re-creates the miracle of loaves and fishes out of a hall attached to Esquimalt United Church.
Once a year, a committee from the First Unitarian Church of Victoria and the Community Social Planning Council pick an Unsung Hero, who they define as “ordinary people who have done extraordinary things and whose contributions within non-profit organizations deserve to be better known, more fully appreciated and publicly applauded – because they will inspire the rest of us.”
The Unsung Hero title comes with a $5,000 cheque for the Rainbow Kitchen, raised from proceeds of a dinner held April 27 in Walter’s honour.
Walter provides more than a calm, effective presence at the Rainbow Kitchen. He changes people’s lives. He finds the volunteer cooks and the food and he runs a dining room that people love. Some say it offers a peaceful option, where they are treated to first-class food, with respect. It is the only place in Victoria where children are welcome for a meal.
From his Métis beginnings, as the son of a dairy farmer, Walter was brought up with the principle that no one should ever go hungry. Born in the “dirty ’30s” in Macdowall, Saskatchewan, Walter did not have an easy childhood — he spent two years in hospital as a result of an accident; his dad was in the TB sanitarium for seven years; and Walter left school after Grade 8.
“In school, in winter, we often sat on the desk as it was too cold to put our feet on the floor,” he recalls.
Despite his youth, Walter had a knack for leadership. He supervised as many as 400 men in numerous construction projects, before he became a horse breeder and trainer in Manitoba. He was entrusted with the horses of the RCMP Musical Ride, the Russian Circus and the Lipizzaner stallions. He calls himself a cowboy, but he had a stable of as many as 60 horses, with 15 staff, and he has 1,500 wins to his credit.
Proud of his Métis roots, Walter’s family tree boasts over 5,000 names; all traced to the first Adams who came to this continent as a buffalo hunter, and who married a First Nations woman. He points out his great-grandmother’s will, signed with an X, bequeathing her “horse, harness, buggy, 4 chairs and one spotted cow” to her son. His father provided game for the family table and was the oldest musher in the Prince Albert Winter Games. His mother was second cousin to John Diefenbaker.
Upon retirement to Victoria in 2004, Walter was looking for an Anglican Church and for something useful to do. He found both at the now disestablished St. Saviour’s in Vic West, where there was a night shelter and a weekly lunch program, called the Rainbow Kitchen. Walter began to cook for both. Eventually, the shelter closed but the Rainbow Kitchen expanded from 40 guests once-a-week to 120 every weekday.
After St. Saviour’s closed its doors, Walter masterminded the Rainbow Kitchen’s move to Esquimalt. A few days before its reopening in February, he had a bevy of bus drivers, all members of the Canadian Auto Workers union, helping move his huge refrigerators.
Walter’s special skill is bringing groups together to meet a common goal. He has Buddhists, Ismailis, Mennonites and many other faith groups cooking for the kitchen. He sweet-talks Victoria grocers into significant donations. “No one says ‘no’ to Walter,” says volunteer Grace Holness.
Walter once accepted a free shipment of six pallets of frozen dessert from a Montreal donor, shared part of it with the Salvation Army and found a cold storage unit that would keep the food — enough for a year’s worth of desserts, he said. He even got the company to spend $600 to ship the food over on the ferry. Another week, Walter was lamenting his near-empty shelves: Then a fisherman brought in 1,100 pounds of salmon.
“One winter, we ran out of fuel for heating,” he recalls. “A guy walked in and asked how much it cost to fill our tank; then he wrote a cheque for $1,000.”
Walter allows himself a little boast: “The Rainbow Kitchen does a lot of people a lot of good. It is not just a meal.” A retired Roman Catholic priest offers weekly counselling; VIHA’s street nurses drop in every second week.
Many of the Kitchen guests are mentally ill, Walter says. “We can’t do much for them, but we can feed them.” He believes the fact that the Rainbow Kitchen is founded on faith helps keep it safe.
But as well as providing food for the disadvantaged, Walter touches their lives. He helped one desperate, drug-addicted older woman get off the streets by first letting her use his telephone. Slowly, he unravels the story that she had significant savings in her hometown. With that money, handled very judiciously, the woman is now off drugs and living a healthier life.
And he has brought together estranged family members. Twice, Walter has found a Rainbow Kitchen client dead in his bed or on the floor. They didn’t turn up for lunch, so Walter went looking for them… and then arranged a celebration of their life. He says simply: “You do good for people; that is what we are here for.”
“The problem with being Walter’s friend is that his goodness is infectious,” says one former St. Saviour’s parishioner. “He was telling me that he had to find a new place for a homeless woman staying with him and Jean. He had rescued her from her van, but now he was having guests… so, the next thing I knew, I had her in MY house.”
A fellow parishioner had terminal cancer, so Walter arranged for him to move into a neighbouring apartment, so he and his partner Jean Baskin could care for the man in his final days.
Walter’s life continues to have challenges. A beloved granddaughter died of cancer two years ago, and Jean — a childhood sweetheart with whom he reconnected at a school reunion after both were widowed — has serious health issues. But he copes, cheerfully, with whatever life dishes out, to provide a much-needed service. And he never seeks recognition for himself. His philosophy for life: “You have to say ‘I forgive you’ more than you say ‘thank you.’”
SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE MAY 2012