Volunteers are the butter that keeps our pans sizzling, the sunshine that keeps our gardens growing, the big hearts that bring our communities together. Last year, hundreds of volunteers contributed 43,000 hours of their time, energy, and skills to Community Food Centre programs. During National Volunteer Week, we celebrate them.
Many of the volunteers in Community Food Centre programs are also users of those programs. In fact, 44% of program participants contribute their skills and leadership as volunteers. CFCs strive to eliminate barriers to participant volunteerism, and to create opportunities for people to pitch in in the ways that make sense for them.
Twenty-eight-year-old Keely started coming to The Alex Community Food Centre in Calgary at her doctor’s suggestion. The drop-in breakfast and affordable produce market helped her access healthy food when the government assistance she received to pay for expensive medication was tied up in a bureaucratic bungle.
“I was hooked right away,” she says. “I started going more and more. The centre is very wheelchair accessible. And the meals are gourmet. It made me realize food can be healthy and tasty at the same time.”
Pretty quickly, Keely she started wondering how she could contribute. “I’d been really depressed. I felt meaningless, that I was merely existing. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to help others.”
Hearing this, staff at The Alex asked Keely if she wanted to volunteer. Now, on Wednesdays, she helps set up for the drop-in lunch, cleaning and rolling cutlery before lunch, or pitching in where an extra hand is needed.
“Usually when I tell potential volunteer places that I have health problems, it scares them right off. Thanks but no thanks, they say. But staff at The Alex didn’t even flinch.”
That’s something that resonates with Julie, a mother of two who has worn many hats since she started coming to The Alex—as a participant, cooking up a storm in community kitchen programs, and as a volunteer, helping shape the concept of the Fresh Food Market or cleaning up after community meals.
“When people are dealing with food insecurity, they want opportunities to give back—not just take,” she says. “That ability to offer to do something in return helps you maintain a sense of dignity and respect when you need to ask for help. And at The Alex, people can give back on their terms. There are no expectations or obligations placed on you when you volunteer. You might only be able to help out for one day, or one meal, and it’s great.”
Julie regularly leads the International Ave community kitchen in making her favourite recipes – the group has learned a lot about cooking, and about her, through those sessions. Across the country, hundreds of volunteers are starting seedlings, running markets, sharing food skills, and supporting their neighbours – acquiring practical skills and leadership experience, and contributing to making their communities vibrant, inclusive, and welcoming spaces.
Does food justice get you fired up? Get involved! Volunteer at an organization—any organization—in your community!