“We don’t have a microwave here,” I’m told, while seated on an antique chair, with Zed the cat nearby, surrounded by vintage kitchenware, crates and trunks, and creepy photos. “Because every week we give it away to a neighbour in need.”
Approaching their 10-year anniversary, Leigh Reid and Karen Nielsen of highjinx are working around the clock, serving the vulnerable without grants or government money, in a “unique space with unique stuff” sold solely to help others, where all profits are donated to the community. highjinx is a true Ottawa treasure. This is their story.
highjinx is a social enterprise and retail store on Kent Street selling donated items in which all profits are returned to the community. Here, no one is turned away. It’s a place where neighbours are helped in-house or directed to another service. They provide hot meals or take-away food, and their backyard is available for you to fix your bike or garden or just hang out. Their free shelf at the front is stocked daily, and most things are gone within the hour. highjinx is your home; it’s there for all its neighbours.
When COVID-19 shut down highjinx’s communal kitchen, where neighbours gathered daily to make seasonal meals together and socialize and guest cooks made their favourite recipes, the store transitioned to delivering hot soups and stews through the kitchen window in takeout containers. Shutting the furniture bank meant increased time spent with neighbours. It was perfect timing, as calls increased 30 to 50 percent and so did road time spent running errands and getting prescriptions for neighbours. With the food pantry and upstairs craft room also shuttered, more time was reallocated to highjinx’s other services, which Leigh and Karen say include “checking in on seniors for wellness checks and food deliveries, helping neighbours in conflict and domestic abuse scenarios by negotiating resolutions,” and working with landlords to get people into new units or keep them in their current homes. As people deal with immeasurable loss, highjinx is there to assist and give cheer.
When highjinx called out for additional supports during the pandemic, the community answered. IKEA Ottawa provided bedding and dishes, Heartbreakers made free pizzas, North and Navy and Herb and Spice brought food over, Rochon Gardens dropped off produce, and the Parkdale Food Centre shared extra food. Seed to Sausage , Three Tarts and Corner Peach helped by donating food, meals, bread, leftovers, and fresh veggies. Plus, many community members brought breads, muffins, and cookies.
“By sharing resources with other organizations,” the highjinx team says, “we can better serve the neighbours. It’s all about neighbours helping neighbours.” Within Ottawa’s grassroots is a mix of warm, caring people with big hearts and the loveliest lessons to learn.
COVID-19’s constant upheaval brought out a lot of caring. Leigh and Karen recall the summer: “People really came together and brought food, supplies, donated cash. Lots of offers to help us with outreach, grocery deliveries, pick-ups. Some families dropped off care bags and snacks to give out. Kids made cards. Some kept our free shelf outside full of treats, cheer, and meals. Books, games, and craft supplies were donated to give to neighbours, so staying at home wasn’t so bleak.” It’s clear evidence that we can do unimaginable things together.
“The shop location we dreamt of had a For Lease sign. We called and signed a lease that day,” Leigh and Karen say, and since then, highjinx has been building relationships with those in need, connecting them to help. Neighbours now call or text to ask for help. With no time to plan long-term, it’s day by day at highjinx, fuelled by sheer determination, accompanied by their team and volunteers who head out on the road to “drop in on seniors or neighbours, run their errands, and bring supplies to them when the need is too great for the two of us to go out.”
Having the highest level of determination lets you conquer anything. That’s timely, given that we’re well into the pandemic’s second wave. The highjinx team recognizes it will be incredibly difficult, but immediately proclaim they “will just work harder to serve those that need our help.” Their craft room that won the MakerHouse Craft Change Funding award in Spring 2020 is on hold, as are many other projects, but highjinx isn’t at a standstill. The store remains in motion, for their neighbours and for Ottawa.
How you can help
Help is needed 52 weeks a year, but with colder weather upon us, sub-zero temperatures coming soon, and evictions underway, a pressing crisis is here. Since highjinx operates solely by selling donated goods, they need you. You can help by giving money, gift cards, food, diapers, or medication. Right now there are seasonal needs too: “Outdoor gear, like sleeping bags, tents, new socks and underwear, school supplies and school snacks,” they say. highjinx requests, however, that you call if you have something to give as donations cannot be left outside. Leigh and Karen would like to stress that “cash donated is used 100% for neighbours’ needs, never operating expenses, and any net profit and donations are used to directly assist vulnerable people in our community with things like food, essentials, emergencies, transportation, and housing.”
“We are all human beings,” they say, and we all need help sometimes. Help can change someone’s world.
highjinx is located at 290 Kent Street near Somerset St. W. Currently, they are open 12pm-4pm on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday with limited capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions and are not accepting donated items until further notice; however, monetary and food donations are welcomed. Learn more at https://www.highjinxottawa.com/.