Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/12/2009 (2800 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Three years ago, I decided I was going to change the world.
Inspired by my first semester of university, and all of the new-found knowledge and insight I had acquired in those four months, I decided I needed to do something to help others in need.
"I'm going to feed the hungry," I thought. "That's a good place to start."
During my Christmas break that year, I called the volunteer co-ordinator at Winnipeg Harvest, Gary McGhee, and signed up for what I thought was going to be a temporary gig.
That call changed my life.
When I first signed up, it didn't dawn on me that in helping others, I would change. I didn't expect I would meet people I would consider to be my second family. Nor did I think I would become impassioned about the plight of people living in poverty and the social issues that go along with that. Heck, before Harvest, I didn't even know how lucky I was.
As a kid, my family was poor, but I didn't know it. My parents did a great job of letting my sisters and I just be kids, without shouldering the burden of our poverty. In hindsight, however, I am very aware of where I came from and of my family's journey to get where we are now.
Three years ago, when I saw first-hand other people living beneath the invisible poverty line, I started to be thankful for what I had.
I decided to visit Harvest again this month. It had been a long time since I had been there, and I wanted to see how everybody was doing in the "busy season."
I was overjoyed to run into Edwina Thomas, one of the first people I met when I started volunteering.
A retired mother of five, with five grandchildren and one great-grandchild, Thomas felt her life lacked direction. So three years ago, after answering an ad in the Free Press, she became a volunteer at Winnipeg Harvest.
"This place keeps me balanced, that's what I like about it," Thomas said, taking a break from the emergency food kit line. "Everybody here is treated like an equal, and with respect. I am part of a family here."
She's right, we are like a family at Winnipeg Harvest.
The demand for food has never been greater, and volunteers like Thomas are the backbone of Winnipeg's largest food bank. With a volunteer-to-staff ratio of eight to one, the family atmosphere plays a large part in what keeps the more than 11,000 unpaid workers coming back through the doors at 1085 Winnipeg Ave.
Aaron Sommer, a volunteer I met recently, has been volunteering for seven months. He said his time at Harvest has been life-changing.
"Being here has given me a real sense of self-worth," Sommer said, noting that he relies on a small food hamper each month since losing his job in 2008. "This is the best thing I have ever done for myself. I wish I would have done this when I was younger."
After walking around the warehouse, visiting old friends and meeting new ones, it dawned on me that we all had much more than volunteering in common. It seemed that in our efforts to make a change in the world, we had made the biggest changes in ourselves.
When I bumped into my old friend Gary McGhee, he told me about all the exciting new plans for Harvest.
They are trying to raise money so they can expand to become more than just a food bank, he said. They want to start a mentorship program, to help volunteers develop the work skills and social skills to help them get paying jobs. McGhee said Harvest already offers its volunteers a great deal of training, but with a bigger facility, it would be able to do that on a larger scale, and help more people. After a few hours at Harvest, making food kits and catching up with my volunteer family, I had to get back to work.
"Make sure you come back," Thomas said to me. "You're like family, and even though you're busy, it's always nice to come home once in awhile."
A look at the problem
WINNIPEG Harvest partners with more than 320 agencies, including soup kitchens, food banks and youth programs, to provide food assistance to Manitobans.
In 2008, 9.8 million pounds of food moved through the Winnipeg Harvest warehouse.
For every $1 donation, Winnipeg Harvest can leverage $20 worth of food.
For more than 20 years, Manitoba has been in the top three provinces for child poverty rates in Canada.
More than 47,900 people access a food bank in Manitoba each month. Half of those are children under 18.
Manitoba has had a 21 per cent increase in food bank usage since 2008 -- the highest on record and surpassing the Canadian increase of 18 per cent.
Winnipeg Harvest says that a single parent with two kids would have to work 72 hours per week, at Manitoba's minimum wage of $9 an hour, just to reach Statistics Canada's low-income cut-off.
To find out how you can get involved, call Winnipeg Harvest at 982-FOOD (3663), or visit www.winnipegharvest.org