This has been a difficult year for many, but if there has been a bright light shining through, it’s the way caring, compassionate individuals have stepped up to help others in any way they can.
This is National Volunteer Week, with a theme of The Value of One, the Power of Many, highlighting “the awe-inspiring acts of kindness by millions of individuals, and the magic that happens when we work together towards a common purpose.”
Volunteer Week reminds us to recognize the power of people, organizations, and sectors working together to make our community a better place for all.
Nowhere is that more evident than Niagara-on-the-Lake, and for all the good that is done, we need look no further than Newark Neighbours, the organization that is staffed solely by volunteers and has been helping the needy in town since 1971.
The registered, not-for-profit organization currently has 39 volunteers who, pre-pandemic, would have shared the duties of running a food bank for those in need, and a thrift shop, which helps to fund the food bank and pay the bills for their John Street East location.
There are eight women who oversee the food bank, sanitizing all donations before placing food on shelves, and providing food bank clients — safely, following COVID protocols — with a selection of groceries every two weeks, as well as special holiday meals.
While the food bank has been able to stay open during the pandemic, with the eight volunteers sharing shifts to cover two mornings a week, the thrift store is closed, says Newark Neighbours chair Laura Gibson, and the volunteers who would have spent a day each week at the shop are missing that social time.
“Everybody had their day, and they’re not able to do that job for the second year. Everyone is missing their friends and fellow volunteers,” says Gibson.
“We look forward to having them all return. They’re anxious and willing to step forward and help. They miss the social contact, and the rewarding work they do.”
Gibson says she is especially thankful to the volunteers who have continued to work through the pandemic, including the large number of volunteers who came out to help with the last three holiday hamper programs, ensuring everyone in need received a great meal and some extras last Thanksgiving, Christmas and over Easter.
“So many of our volunteers came out to help, and this was before vaccinations. We really appreciate them all stepping up for us.
“For the last 50 years, past and present volunteers — and there have been many of them over the years — have been so dedicated to Newark Neighbours.”
The community has also always been very generous and quick to respond when there was a need, she says.
There has been more need than ever during the pandemic, with an increase of about 35 to 40 per cent in the number of clients requiring help from the food bank, says Gibson, many of them families suffering a loss in income because jobs have been lost, or hours cut.
“This really opens your eyes to what is occurring around us. People think it’s not happening in NOTL, but it is. People are having hard times, and it’s not their fault. It’s great that we can help them through this, but we couldn’t do it without our volunteers, and a very generous community.”
Newark volunteers are also trying to help in other ways, she adds, such as reaching out to find volunteers who can help with taxes, or for clients who find themselves in need of housing.
It’s difficult when those kinds of services are only available in St. Catharines or Niagara Falls, and there is no transportation to access them.
“People are experiencing really difficult times, with housing and other necessities. We give them emergency food and help however we can, and then get them to go through the application process. We don’t turn anyone away.”
Chris Hatch, a NOTL resident who is CEO of Food Banks Canada reached out to Newark recently to help them with some funding that they qualify for — they’ve never received any kind of government grant in the past, but it was good to know it’s available, says Gibson. It can help them purchase some food items they need, and will tide them over the next six months.
“We’re still getting food donations, and we’re fine for now, and maybe once we’re out of this lockdown, we’ll have another community food drive. We’re likely to need it by then.”