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Jack Knox: Get-'er-done women drive feed-the-hungry charities

They get stuff done. They don’t stop working when they talk, and they know how to squeeze a dollar out of a dime.

Were it not for no-longer-getting-paid women, the world would come to a shuddering halt.

They get stuff done. They don’t stop working when they talk. They know how to squeeze a dollar out of a dime. They might not always obey Sophia Loren’s dictum that one should never groan when standing up, but they do, in fact, stand up when needed, which they always are.

For proof, just pop by any of Vancouver Island’s feed-the-hungry charities: Nourish Cowichan, Loaves and Fishes in Nanaimo, your local food bank. The deep end of the volunteer pool often has a disproportionate number of women who can remember Trudeau 1.0. Without them, people don’t eat.

It was women of a range of ages who were moving briskly inside Mill Bay’s CMS Food Bank this week. Christmas hamper day, when turkey and trimmings are added to the regular groceries — fruit, veggies, meat, rice, pasta, peanut butter and so on — is particularly busy.

The hampers also included gift cards to buy presents for well over 200 children, plus gift bags (nice ones, sewn by a donor) for a similar number of adults. A woman’s might include a scarf, hat, gloves, a candle, shampoo, lotion and other toiletries. A man might get gloves, socks, razor blades, shaving cream, dish cloths and other useful items.

It was former teacher Cécile Healey who filled the adults’ bags. She’s among 40 volunteers, including a core group of 20, who keep CMS — it stands for Cobble Hill, Mill Bay and Shawnigan Lake — running. Some, like Healey, have spent decades helping out at the food bank, which was founded by the Roman Catholic, United and Anglican churches in 1983.

It’s a cramped operation, squeezed into a little cottage. When I last visited two years ago, a lone young woman stood outside, shifting from foot to foot, looking uncertain. She was typical of those turning to the food bank at the height of the pandemic: hospitality industry workers who, suddenly unemployed, found themselves drowning.

They’re gone now, their heads back above water, but they have been replaced by another influx. “Now we have people who are pretty much the working poor,” says CMS co-ordinator Traci Waite.

Inflation has outstripped the earnings of people commuting to entry-level jobs in Langford. It has been years, Waite says, since she has seen so many new faces show up.

At the same time that inflation is adding to one side of the ledger, it’s subtracting from the other. “Our donations are down about 20 per cent,” Waite says. “Everything’s expensive for everybody, right?”

So, she’s grateful when contributions come in. As we speak, a local woman shows up with a cheque. Food donations, including a big box of day-old bread and pastries from the Sweet Meadows Market, arrive via the side door.

It really is a case of neighbours helping neighbours. Across Deloume Road, Thrifty Foods collects money for the food bank throughout December. The grocer also donates still-good food that it can’t sell, and lets CMS use its loading dock when delivery trucks can’t navigate the latter’s forecourt.

Even the animals are remembered. A dog fanciers group cuts a cheque each year. Sad-faced people whose pooches have perished show up with half-empty bags of Purina. Lucky Paws, the pet supply store in the Mill Bay Shopping Centre, donates food that has hit its best-before-but-still-good date.

In a small community like this, the connections feel a little tighter. Waite harbours fond memories of property developer Ralph Cleasby, who, back in the days when donors would get a description of a child for whom they could buy Christmas gifts, would show up as the holiday neared, gruffly ask: “Who’s left to adopt?” then fill his truck with gifts for the kids in question. He’s gone now, but other residents still donate in his memory.

The donation window tends to be narrow, though. “We make all our money in December,” Waite says. It’s like a once-a-year harvest that has to last 12 months.

That’s why she was really happy when a $10,000 cheque from the Times Colonist Christmas Fund arrived. Not a huge amount relative to what some larger charities get, but a big deal for a smaller one. “That took so much of the heat off,” Waite says.

More than 40 non-profits are receiving Christmas Fund grants this year, including several smaller, beyond-the-Malahat food banks that might not always make it onto the radar screen: Denman Island, Lake Cowichan, Ucluelet….

None would exist without the volunteers who keep the wheels going round. They’re the glue that holds us together.


• Go to donate, which is open 24 hours a day and provides an immediate tax receipt.

• Mail a cheque to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund, 201-655 Tyee Rd., Victoria, B.C. V9A 6X5.

• Use your credit card by phoning 250-995-4438 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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