The need to receive, and give

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The manager of the Friends in Need Food Bank in Maple Ridge says her brother made her want to accept the job.

Joanne Olson says Mike had steady work, his own apartment. He was okay. But after 30 years with the Department of Defense, he was laid off.

At age 50, it was difficult to find good employment. Odd jobs didn’t cover the rent – B.C. has the lowest minimum wage, and highest cost of living in Canada. Mike’s severance pay ran out.

Joanne wishes she could have helped him more, but her brother lived in Winnipeg, and she was here.

Joanne said Mike was angry and frustrated for reasons that weren’t always clear to everyone. Since 1993, he had been contending with recurring attacks of flesh eating disease.

Mike’s situation has helped Joanne strive to be a good listener, firm but fair with everyone who comes through her door.

Joanne’s brother eventually lost his apartment.

“He couch sat where he could,” says Joanne, “and tried to keep going. In the final months, though, he was sleeping in his car.”

In 2009, Mike died from complications of the disease he kept from most people to the end, and Joanne became the manager of the food bank.

“It was like an omen, a message,” she says. “I had to.”

Joanne understands the emotions that go with needing a food basket. Often, there’s mental or physical illness, a disability, loss of job, death of a bread winner. It’s difficult to admit you need a hamper just to get by. Pride gets in the way. There’s pride.

“So many people are afraid to tell anyone they need help because they’re seen as losers.”

The food bank has 3,000 registered clients and hands out 575 baskets each month. Clientele jumped about 30 per cent with the downturn, 10 per cent more in 2009.

Joanne says the misconception about who needs the food is persistent.

“So many people think we just feed the homeless. We work with the Sally Ann to help them, but all our clients have a fixed address. You need a kitchen to make use of a hamper.”

The working poor is a growing group here, says Joanne. “The number who own their own home who can’t make it is increasing. Some are working two jobs. That puts a strain on couples. The increasing anxiety is causing split-ups.”

The hourly minimum wage is not the living wage. That’s $16.41, the bare amount for rent, food, phone bills, and so on. “Someone might have a title of assistant manger,” says Joanne, “but little else.”

I know kids like this, too. They work long hours, and pool earnings to live in substandard apartments, often with bad neighbors, and nothing left for buses or a movie.

Seniors and children represent 47 per cent of the food bank’s clientele. Joanne suspects there are more out there.

“There’s hundreds, but they won’t come in here. They won’t say they need help. If they get CCP and old age security, and that’s all, we have no problem registering them.”

Some don’t have a way to get in. They have a disability, don’t drive, they’re scared, or just too old. “We have 14 shut-ins,” says Joanne. “We can barely get to those because we only have one van and can’t get volunteer drivers.

A hamper, three to five days of groceries, costs about $100. Joanne wants to provide a second one each month, but that would take another $60,000. In a larger city like Kelowna, with big hotels and businesses, it would be easier to find that. Still, Joanne praises the business community here for doing what it can.

In the meantime, she struggles to come up with other ways to raise funds throughout the year.

“We collect 80 per cent of what we need for a year at Christmas,” she says.

On Feb. 12, the food bank hosts a fund raising dinner to celebrate Chinese New Year at Pitt Meadows Heritage Hall on Harris Road. Food from Enjoy Garden Restaurant. Tickets at the food bank.

Last month, when Joanne spoke publicly about increasing demands of the food bank, someone asked, how she could get her clients involved in the community?

We all need to give as well as receive.

Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.