A Winnipeg couple is spreading comfort and joy through a challenging holiday season by delivering the gift of homemade soup to hundreds of frontline workers impacted by COVID-19.
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They’ve become famous online as the Winnipeg Soup Fairies, but the recipients of their delicious deliveries prefer to think of this married Windsor Park couple as Christmas Angels.
As of Wednesday, Paulette Côté and her husband of 28 years, Peter Czehryn, had delivered more than 100 litres of soup along with fresh baking and a message of compassion to people in quarantine or suffering from the novel coronavirus.
"We’ve focused on health-care workers, educators and frontline workers and their families," explained Côté, 57, who will be retiring in March after a career as a school community liaison worker in St. Vital. "Sometimes it’s after someone died from COVID-19 and sometimes it’s been when someone has tested positive and can’t get out and is isolated."
“It started because my cousin, who is a nurse, was COVID–19 positive.” – Paulette Côté
Winnipeg’s Soup Fairies took flight about six weeks ago after a member of Côté’s family tested positive for the potentially lethal virus.
"It started because my cousin, who is a nurse, was COVID-19 positive," she recalled in an hour-long interview, during which she and husband Peter, 65, chatted over the phone while simultaneously cooking up another huge vat of soup.
"She likes to call herself ‘Patient Zero,’ " Côté said, laughing. "I asked her if she wanted some soup. I was concerned because she’s alone in her apartment. I said I’d put on a pot for her, and she chose chicken noodle, and that was the start.
"Then others in my family got sick with COVID-19. Quite a few of them. Not Peter and I and our two sons, so we just kept doing soup and groceries and whatever needed to be done."
The couple, longtime volunteers at the St. Mary’s Road Food Bank, realized there was a huge need in the community, because not everyone has friends and family to bring them groceries, let alone healing bowls of soup.
They extended their soup deliveries to their neighbourhood by posting the offer on a Windsor Park community Facebook page. "The orders started coming in and that was when I realized this has the potential to get pretty big," Côté said.
And it did get big, especially after the couple created dedicated Winnipeg Soup Fairies pages on Facebook and Instagram, allowing those in need anywhere in Winnipeg to message them with requests for soup for themselves or family members.
That’s when the demand exploded. "We’ve been averaging between 20 and 25 litres of soup in the last few weeks," Côté said. "If it continues to expand we may have to go to twice-a-week deliveries."
Fortunately, a couple of chefs have volunteered to give the Soup Fairies a helping hand, including Côté’s sister and brother-in-law — Louise Côté-Fletcher and Gerard Fletcher, owners of Shannon’s Irish Pub — and Roger Wilton, a Red Seal chef from Beausejour.
"They (her sister and brother-in-law) are going to make it one week and then the other chef is going to make it one week and then we’ll make it," she said. "Peter and I do all the deliveries."
“We’ve been averaging between 20 and 25 litres of soup in the last few weeks.” – Paulette Côté
They’ve also got the green light to use the kitchen at St. Mary’s Road United Church, where they volunteer in the food bank.
Under their system, huge batches of soup are brewed up one day, then contactless deliveries are made the following day. The couple load their car with packages of soup, along with fresh baking and a greeting card from the Soup Fairies.
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They also accept cash and food donations. They've received $1,475 in donations since taking flight six weeks ago, cash that is used to buy soup ingredients.
You can donate to their cause via e-transfer at firstname.lastname@example.org
When the mask-wearing Soup Fairies are en route, they alert the recipients by phone, place the food on their front doorstep, then back away. "We’re very, very cautious," Côté, who has a food-handling certificate and taught cooking classes for five years, said. "We disinfect our hands before and after. We ask people to stay in their house until we’ve dropped it off.
"Sometimes people will wave. They’re so appreciative. We hear back from them on Facebook or Instagram. They’re just so taken aback that strangers would do that. They say it was so needed and so appreciated. It keeps us going. That’s what’s healing my soul."
The soup deliveries are also a way of honouring Côté’s mother, Lil, who lost her battle with cancer in July at age 85. "She’s the motivation," Côté said, her voice breaking. "She was the original Bread Fairy. She made homemade bread and people lined up to shovel her driveway in hopes of getting bread and cinnamon buns. She got great care and I definitely wanted to give back. It’s nice to give back in a way my mom would have appreciated."
Her husband, Peter Czehryn (pronounced "Check-rin"), a retired provincial highways employee, said he believes they are delivering hope along with soup.
“Chicken noodle soup is good for the soul. But it helps people who are isolated and feeling alone to know there is somebody out there who cares about them." – Peter Czehryn
"Chicken noodle soup is good for the soul," he said. "But it helps people who are isolated and feeling alone to know there is somebody out there who cares about them. I feel like I’m making a difference in these times when we are all under the bubble in the red zone and we all just want to get back to normal."
The parents of two grown sons say the soup deliveries will continue long after Christmas, because the need exists 365 days of the year.
The co-ordinator of the St. Mary’s Road Food Bank, Joan Boone, said calling this kind-hearted couple Soup Fairies doesn’t do them justice. While suffering from pneumonia, she was the recipient of two soup deliveries.
"They’re just the most incredible people I’ve come across in all my years because of all the good they do," Boone said. "Are they just Christmas Angels? No, they are angels all year round. Their goal is to always make sure that people who are less fortunate are taken care of."
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