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Posted: May 15, 2019

Paying it back on a mission to fill the void

By Erin Knutson

To meet Joseph Paul Blais, who prefers to be called Paul, is to know you’ve met someone who truly cares.

Blais is a selfless man and one who has been feeding the people of Cranbrook since his eventful arrival in the East Kootenay two years ago.

“It’s 365 days a year,” he said of his campaign to pay it forward and to give back.

A life-threatening accident in Florida left Blais stranded on the streets of Cranbrook just before Christmas of 2017. He spent 42 days in recovery in the U.S. hospital bills destroyed his finances, and he became homeless, without credit.

He was transferred to East Kootenay Regional Hospital in Cranbrook (due to a local postcode he set up for mail when he left for the States), and from there was sent to the Salvation Army, without a penny to his name. Blais (pictured to the right) was on the streets from December 22, 2017, to January 22, 2018.

Not all was lost, and he was embraced by a loving community that helped him recover, get off the street, and rebuild his life, doing something he loves, cooking.

Blais, a French-Canadian chef from Quebec, loves to cook and enjoys the result of feeding people and keeping bellies full. He started his vendor business ‘That Pizza Guy’ from $400 given to him by a person living on the street and it became the catalyst to feed all of Cranbrook, as needed.

“People will always need food; this is a constant need, bellies need to be fed, it’s something that never goes away,” he said.

Once Blais settled into a new normal he decided that he needed to give back. His time on the streets and the outreach he received from organizations like the Salvation Army and Street Angels impressed upon him the need of those around him.

There are over 50 documented people living on the streets in Cranbrook, and many struggling to pay bills—Blais’s mission seeks to fill the void.

“It’s everyone’s responsibility— it’s not just the responsibility of the government to look after people; we need to look after each other.”

Blais often serves individuals struggling with mental health and addictions issues, disability, and really anybody who requires a good meal with his community breakfasts. He’s also there with a warm smile, and an eagerness to extend a helping hand.

“People are people, it doesn’t matter who they are, and we need to treat them like family,” said Blais.

He not only cooks with wholesome ingredients, serving up delicious smokies with all of the fixings, eggs and bacon, his signature pizza and an assortment of drinks; but he’s there to connect people with resources in the community.

Whether that’s providing food, locating shelter, or offering a friendly ear to those who just need some encouragement to get through the day, Blais is there with his commitment to pay it forward.

“I was given a second chance in life. I’m here, and there’s a reason for it,” he says of his near-death experience.

Blais imparts that all of us are vulnerable and life can happen when you least expect it but according to the philanthropist and full-time volunteer, compassion, working together, and believing in a cause are all the necessary ingredients to make change happen.

“Forget the naysayers,” he said. “When people come together with a commonality and a plan, anything can be accomplished.”

His movement has taken off through social media, which when used for the greater good can be an asset to society, according to Blais, who has been pleasantly surprised by the traction his work has gained in the community.

Currently, he has close to 40 sponsors, consisting of individuals and local businesses who contribute $10 a week and 18 volunteers who help him run his 24/7 operation. Eventually, Blais acknowledged that he would like a longtime member of the community to take over services but for now he’s content to be a beacon of hope and an example of how to take care of others with the support of ‘just about everyone.’

He believes things like food and shelter are a given in society and a problem he thinks we can crack.

“There is a solution, and I believe we can get there. The response of the community has been overwhelming. Everything is community donation, we didn’t use grants or government support,” said Blais on the success of his model which snowballed from one breakfast a week to every day of the week 365 days of the year in a short time.

As for his guests, they seemed to be enjoying having a good meal, and a place to sit and eat outside of the Lazy Bear Lodge, where Blais serves the community on Thursday’s from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“Many people will just buy drugs and alcohol, so offering food is a great way to make sure people eat; many people need help for various reasons, and it’s good that he’s here,” said breakfast guest, Rodney Pearson.

Lead image and photos above: Joseph Paul Blais serves the community of Cranbrook his famous daily free breakfast outside of Lazy Bear Lodge. Photo Credits: Erin Knutson

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