Chatham Outreach for Hunger surpasses 30-year milestone

Roy Cornell, left, and Brenda LeClair have been with Chatham Outreach for Hunger since it opened in October 1988. They pictured here in Chatham, Ont. on Thursday January 10, 2019. Ellwood Shreve/Chatham Daily News/Postmedia Network

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When Chatham Outreach for Hunger opened its doors in a tiny, shared space 30 years ago, there was shock in the community a food bank was even needed.

Brenda LeClair, who is the first and only executive director the food bank has known since opening in October 1988, recalls the belief, at the time, was the facility would only be a temporary measure.

Noting food banks are now in virtually every community across Canada, she said, “We’re not going to see an end to it anytime soon.” LeClair said the food bank recognizes it is a temporary solution, but added people still have to be fed.

“So, if that’s what we have to do to make sure those people are getting the nutrition they need, that’s what we’re going continue to do.” LeClair has witnessed the need continue to grow over the years, citing a reduction in social services benefits several years ago, which has never been recovered, and the impact of rising utility bills and higher cost of food on low-income earners, as all being contributing factors.

“I’ve often said 30 years ago, if we saw 20 people a week, we thought we were really busy,” she said. “Somedays, we can see 50 or 60 families in a day and I think, ‘Wow, what a difference that is.’” The food bank is now serving 350 to 400 families a month, along with 100-200 people during drop-in day on Thursdays, she said.

LeClair said the food bank wouldn’t have survived if not for the continued support of the community as well as the legion of volunteers who have helped over the years.

The community support was tremendous in the beginning and its only become better, she said.

One example was seen in how the community rallied when the Outreach for Hunger location on Centre Street was destroyed in a fire in March 2011.

“In 30 years, I’ve never seen a decline in the support that people give to the food bank,” LeClair said. “That’s phenomenal for a not-for-profit . . . that the community really believes this is something that we need.” As for volunteers, LeClair said she’s had the good fortune of meeting many wonderful people over the years.

“It’s been tremendous the volunteer support that comes in here and the new people that come in and want to be a part of this,” she said. “It’s so rewarding to see it.” She estimates there are 80 active volunteers who do everything from cleaning the building, picking up groceries, packing food and sorting canned goods.

“It’s takes a lot of manpower to keep this place running and we couldn’t do it without the volunteers.” It also takes compassion.

LeClair said the volunteers are here because they believe in the value the operation provides to the community.

“You can’t work in a food bank . . . with families who are struggling and are sometimes angry and frustrated because of the situation they’re in, and not be committed to it,” she said.

Don McGregor and Roy Cornell are among the volunteers who, like LeClair, have been with the food bank since Day 1.

McGregor, 84, said he never golfed, so coming to the food bank on a daily basis has given him something to do in his retirement.

He has done pretty well everything a volunteer can do there. He was even joined by his wife Barbara for 20 years when they helped clean the building together once a week.

Roy Cornell, 80, has enjoyed his time volunteering to help keep the food bank clean.

“I have great people to work with,” he said. “I just enjoy the job.” He also likes the fact all the volunteers contribute in some way to the success of the food bank.

McGregor is proud of what the food bank represents about the community.

He is fond of saying, “Whenever there’s a need . . . it doesn’t take Kent County long to get everything rolling and everything paid for.” He has no plans to stop volunteering anytime soon.

“If I’m alive, I’ll be there,” McGregor joked.

In fact, he has a hard time staying away.

McGregor said when the food bank wasn’t open during the recent Christmas break, “I was getting a little buggy, I said, ‘I got to get going here.’” As for LeClair, she initially didn’t even want the job, adding she was just happy being a volunteer when the food bank first opened.

“Then the talked me into doing the intake, then they talked me into taking this job.” After 30 years, LeClair said, “I’m here because I absolutely love it. I can’t imagine doing anything else or being anywhere else, or not being able to come here.”

eshreve@postmedia.com

@Chathamnews

 

 

 

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