Everybody is somebody.
Those three words drive Elston Canada, a longtime resident of Charleston’s West Side, to help his neighbors year-round.
“If everybody would take one person to do something for them, all the issues would be taken care of in our community,” Canada, 63 and a custodian at George Washington High, said.
Canada’s basement is full of furniture he delivers to families in need. He has been involved in coat drives, and he used to hand out bread to people in their cars. He’s known around the community, and people are constantly giving him things to pass on to others.
He said he’s been doing outreach ministry for 20 years.
Canada said he finds out about his neighbors’ needs through word of mouth, or sometimes people approach him because he’s been giving for so long. Other times, it’s a feeling.
“I will walk around the grocery store, and God will speak to me and say, ‘There’s one right there who needs help,’” he said. “I just let God lead me.”
In time for Thanksgiving, he delivered 50 food boxes — stuffed with everything for a savory holiday meal — with supplies he gathered first through donations he requested as his birthday gift.
“If I have a meal on my table for Thanksgiving, why can’t my neighbor have a meal on their table?” he asked.
Money and food donations continued to come in from family and friends via word of mouth and Canada’s Facebook page. George Washington teachers and students, once they learned what Canada was doing, contributed to the food boxes.
Sometimes, the donations came from complete strangers.
“I’d be shopping and someone would say, ‘Can I give you $20?’ That’s how I got this,” Canada said, sitting between tables piled with stuffing mix, rolls, canned cranberry sauce and bags of potatoes.
His son, Adam, moved around his father as he assembled the food boxes with a 13-item checklist.
“I’ve learned it’s important that we all take time to help community,” he said.
Last year, the family gave out 40 Thanksgiving dinner boxes to neighbors in need. Some people were in tears when they received the food, Elston Canada recalled.
“We’re here to show God’s love,” he said. “You can’t talk to a person or meet their needs unless you find out what their immediate need is, and, a lot of time, their first immediate need is hunger.
“If you come with love and meet their hunger need, they’ll open up to talk about their other problems. Then you might be able to help them with some other things they’ve got going on in their lives.”
Canada assembled the boxes at Greater Emmanuel Gospel Tabernacle, where he has attended for decades and now serves as a minister. He and the church’s head pastor, Norman Jones Jr., have seen the needs of West Side residents ebb and flow over the years. Now, they both agree the most pressing issue is a lack of jobs.
“When you don’t have jobs, it means you don’t have food,” Jones said. “I hope and pray other churches are giving out more.”
Canada was born to a coal miner father, in Ward, before moving to the West Side as a child.
“I’m one of 15 children my mother had. I know what it is to be without,” he said.
His daily desire to help others, he said, can be attributed to his mother’s longtime service in the church he still attends.
“My mother was active in the community as a missionary and minister, and when I was called [into ministry], I had so many avenues open because I’d been at this church for 50 years,” he said.
He said he feels confident the Thanksgiving food ministry will grow under the care of his sons and grandchildren.
“I say even to my 7-year-old grandson, ‘If you have someone in your class who needs help, give them Pawpaw’s number,’ Canada said.
“That’s why I believe they are going to carry it on. All I ask: Do it better than me.”