The Christmas season carries many different meanings for different people, but for Kim Paolini and Dianne MacDonnell, it means that it’s time to gear up for what is certain to be a busy time at Hope’s food bank.
“At Christmas our client list swells by quite a bit. Generally, we have about three to four hundred people a month use the food bank, but for Christmas we’re expecting to distribute about 55 hampers,” said MacDonnell.
“It’s a hard time of year for those who are most in need of help and we’re going to try to make it a little bit easier.”
Both Paolini and MacDonnell are program co-ordinators for the food bank.
“The main thing that we’ve worked very hard at, and something that’s particularly important around Christmas, is to treat our clients with dignity and respect,” said Paolini.
“There was a time at food banks where people had to line up outside, and it was humiliating … embarrassing for them. They didn’t want to have to come to a food bank and they were often feeling ashamed at being here. We’ve done a lot to change that.”
One of the major changes made by the group is to move into their new location.
For years the group partnered with the North West Harvest Church, who had been kind enough to donate space for the program.
But as the need grew, the food bank realized that they needed to move. They now occupy a location at 888 Third Avenue North, not far from their previous location.
“Here we have the ability to get people inside, and when they come in we provide them with a nice lunch and a chance to relax in a private surrounding, and the difference is amazing,” said Paolini.
“They used to come in with their heads down, never smiling, and it was a very sad thing to see. Now they come in, and have lunch, and wait their turn to go through and pick the items they want and need.
“Some of them volunteer for us as well and there are a lot of smiles and hugs. It’s a very different feeling we have now.”
MacDonnell said the key is respecting people’s dignity.
“The people who come to the food bank don’t want to be in need of a food bank. Many are working poor, not able to get by with a minimum-wage job. Some are underemployed, only able to find part-time employment. We have single parents struggling to get by and, increasingly, we’re seeing seniors who find that their pensions are simply not enough to survive,” she said.
MacDonnell said that the food bank opened its doors in 1979 in what was seen as a stop-gap measure during tough economic times. It has never ceased operation since that time and MacDonnell said the need is growing every year.
“We’re very fortunate to have great support in this community. The Save-On Foods store and the Buy-Low Foods are both extremely generous and we have a strong group of volunteers who come in and keep us going,” said MacDonnell.
“And the community at large is so generous with donations of food and cash. It’s what makes our work possible.”
With Christmas approaching, the food bank will also be working with other agencies to distribute toys to less fortunate families in an effort to ensure that every child gets a gift this holiday season.
But there are some aspects of the food bank’s operations that are problematic and, although both Paolini and MacDonnell are loathe to seem ungrateful, they acknowledge that they are concerned about the months after Christmas.
“It’s not like people stop being hungry in January and February but, after Christmas, we know that our donations are going to pretty much dry up. I guess we’re asking for people to realize that the need continues all year round and it would be great to keep that Christmas spirit alive and continue to donate when January comes around,” said MacDonnell.
“Maybe that’s what the Christmas spirit is really all about.”