Debbie Willis has been helping the less fortunate in our community get enough to eat for quite some time now.
She started volunteering with the Campbell River food bank in 1998. Eventually she joined the board of directors because of her passion for what they were trying to accomplish.
Fourteen years after she first put her hand up to help for free, she took over managing the organization, and has been leading it for almost a decade now. They’ve grown from having a paid staff of “one and a half,” she says, to now a staff of six.
The rest of the work, as it has always been, is done by the organization’s loyal and dedicated volunteers.
And they certainly are loyal and dedicated. Willis says that the vast majority of those who ask if they can help end up sticking around for a very, very long time.
“We try not to burn them out and we treat them like gold,” she says. “Ninety-nine per cent of them stay until they just can’t do it anymore. People just don’t want to leave, because we have so much fun here.”
Part of “not burning them out” entails being open to how often – and how long – the volunteers want to work for, Willis says.
“We have some that work a two-hour shift once a week and we have some that are here ten hours a week,” she says. “Then we have the ones that will just work until the job is finished, however long that takes.”
But like many businesses and organizations in the community, the last year has been a challenge, even for a group as dedicated as the volunteers at the food bank.
Pre-COVID, Willis says, the organization had “about 45” volunteers.
“Now we have maybe 27 or 28,” she continues.
It’s not from lack of need or reduced hours of operation, however.
It’s because the average age of their volunteers puts them in the “most vulnerable” age bracket.
“A lot of people chose to stay home for safety reasons, whether it be compromised immune systems or any number of other reasons, they chose to back away for a bit,” Willis says. In fact, the number they’re at now is an increase from how low the numbers got about six or eight months into the pandemic.
“We totally get it,” she says. “In the non-profit business, you get very good at adapting to changes, because they happen all the time and sometimes they happen without any warning. And we learned adjustment even quicker with COVID. We’ve had to tighten the schedule a bit.”
Possibly the biggest adjustment they’ve had to make, however, wasn’t a logistical one. It was not being able to be together in the ways they were used to as a team.
“We’ve always been a very tight-knit group,” Willis says. “We used to have a lunch for the volunteers prior to opening for distribution where we would share stories and pictures of our grandsons or granddaughters and have a laugh together like it was a big family meal, and now because of the restrictions, we have what I like to call the ‘movable feast,’ and there’s only three or four people allowed in the kitchen at a time instead of the usual 14.”
She is hoping, however, that things are on track to get back to the “old normal” relatively soon now that vaccines are starting to get into arms.
Which is good, because the community demand for the food bank’s services certainly hasn’t dropped.
If you’d like to get involved, head to www.volunteercr.ca and click “I Want To Volunteer,” to find the Food Bank in their list of organizations, or contact Willis directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 250-286-3226.