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Jack Knox: At the food banks, people the volunteers have never seen before

Outside the cramped little Mill Bay building, waiting for a volunteer to pass her a bag of groceries, a young woman rocked from foot to foot, looking a bit self-conscious.
Times Colonist Christmas Fund logo

Outside the cramped little Mill Bay building, waiting for a volunteer to pass her a bag of groceries, a young woman rocked from foot to foot, looking a bit self-conscious.

Maybe she was an example of what the CMS Food Bank’s co-ordinator, Traci Waite, had been talking about a few minutes earlier.

“The demographic has changed,” Waite said. “We’re seeing working people, mainly servers.” The pandemic has been brutal on the hospitality sector.

“People come in here crying because they’ve never been in a food bank before and don’t know the process.”

Yes, well, we’ve heard a lot of that this year, not just from CMS — it stands for Cobble Hill, Mill Bay and Shawnigan Lake — but from food banks in Sooke, Nanaimo, Duncan, the West Shore, the Saanich Peninsula, the Comox Valley…

The good news? All of them, along with the Salvation Army, Mustard Seed Street Church, Victoria Women’s Transition House and a dozen other agencies from Campbell River to Mayne Island, just shared a quarter million bucks that dropped in their laps, unexpectedly, courtesy of the Times Colonist Christmas Fund last week.

Added to the amounts previously allocated to the Mustard Seed, Sally Ann and the Rapid Relief Fund, that brings this year’s running total to $631,000 — more than twice as much as usual. There’ll be more to come, too, since donations are still coming in.

On Sunday, a flurry of 80 donations took this year's fund to $811,000 – just $189,000 short of our goal of $1 million by Dec. 31.

To emphasize the point: This is not the Times Colonist’s money, it’s yours. People who might otherwise go hungry are having a little light shed in their lives this Christmas solely because readers stepped up in a year in which pessimists — including me — expected donations to plunge. Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of the essential goodness of people.

The latter was on display in that food bank in Mill Bay, where half a dozen cheerful volunteers were busy Thursday. Forty of them, including a core group of 20, keep the place running. Some have spent decades pitching in at the food bank, which was founded by the Roman Catholic, United and Anglican churches in 1983. Back then it operated out of a shipping container that still gets used for storage.

The current building was a hive of activity this week, food being plucked off the shelves and bagged for recipients. Someone walked in with a big bag of day-old baguettes from the Thrifty Foods store across Deloume Road. The grocer is a huge help, sending over baked goods and dairy and food getting close to its expiry date. When trucks too big to fit in the food bank forecourt have deliveries, the Thrifty lets them use the store’s loading dock.

Some recipients showed up for groceries, while others collected Christmas hampers.

In a normal year there’s a big celebratory Christmas distribution at the nearby Masonic hall, but COVID cancelled that. Instead, this year’s hampers consist of a selection of gift cards — a typical family might get ones for Walmart, grocers, a pizza place and somewhere to buy a toy — that are picked up by appointment.

Gift cards also feature prominently in the packages that 88-year-old volunteer Terry Eden assembled for 240 children. Another volunteer, Cécile Healey, a Belgian French teacher who moved here after marrying a Canadian soldier, has put together gift bags for adults: toothpaste, shampoos, socks and other useful stuff.

Everywhere are little signs of humanity. On Waite’s office wall is a photo of local property developer Ralph Cleasby. In the past, the food bank would do a thing where residents would get a description of a child for whom they could buy Christmas gifts. Each year, Cleasby would gruffly ask “Who’s left to adopt?” then go fill his truck with gifts for the kid.

When Cleasby died in a road crash in 2009, his obituary asked mourners to give to the food bank. Waite says an annual fundraising dance held by Cleasby’s friend Craig Partridge didn’t happen this year due to COVID, but $7,000 flowed in anyway.

Another photo memorialized a boy who died while still a student at Bench Elementary School. When his family was going through his things, they found a diary entry in which he said his favourite Christmas was the one in which he helped children in need. His family still contributes, too.

It all seems… human. In the city, there’s more of a distance between giver and givee, but in a small place like this there’s a sense of neighbour helping neighbour. Maybe that’s why Waite did a not-so-little jump for joy when the Christmas Fund cheque arrived.

Now multiply that scene by 20 and you get an idea of how much good has been done by Times Colonist readers this Christmas.

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One more thing. There’s someone else who would appreciate being remembered this Christmas: your Times Colonist carrier. Cheers to the elves who deliver your newspapers in the middle of the night.

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Donate online at ­­ That will take you to the Canada Helps website, which is open 24 hours a day and provides an immediate tax receipt.

Or mail a cheque, payable to the Times Colonist ­Christmas Fund Society, to the Times ­Colonist Christmas Fund, 201-655 Tyee Road, Victoria V9A 6X5.

Or use your credit card by phoning 250-995-4438 between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., Monday through Friday. Outside those hours, messages will be accepted.

Donate refundable cans and bottles at Bottle Depot and GFL Environmental depots.

• From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. today, “no-touch drop-off” of toys, non-perishable food, cash at Dodd’s Furniture & Mattress, 715 Finlayson St., Victoria.


Recipients of the latest round of Times Colonist Christmas Fund grants include:

• Mustard Seed Street Church

• Salvation Army, Victoria

• Goldstream Food Bank

• Sooke Food Bank

• Saanich Peninsula Food Bank

• Victoria Women’s Transition House

• Vancouver Island Counselling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees

• Nourish Cowichan, Duncan

• Cobble Hill-Mill Bay-Shawnigan Lake Food Bank

• Lake Cowichan Food Bank

• Loaves and Fishes Food Bank, Nanaimo

• Salvation Army, Port Alberni

• Salvation Army, Parksville

• Comox Valley Food Bank

• Campbell River Food Bank

• Salvation Army, Campbell River

• Salt Spring Island Food Bank

• Mayne Island Food Bank

• People For A Healthy Community on Gabriola Island

• Denman Island Food Bank

• Hornby Island Food Bank

• Food Bank On The Edge, Ucluelet