Nfld. & Labrador

Gander food bank almost shut its doors, but then dozens of volunteers stepped up

When the Gander and Area Food Bank decided that operating was too risky for its elderly volunteers, a dedicated supporter recruited 50 new faces to help the cause.

Group has resumed operations after COVID-19 closure

The Gander and Area Food Bank's shelves are currently well stocked, said volunteer Karolyn Dobbin, thanks to community donations. (Submitted by Karolyn Dobbin)

A whole new generation of volunteers — more than 40 people — have answered a plea to keep the Gander and Area Food Bank alive.

The volunteers all stepped up in the past three weeks, after the food bank's directors decided it was too risky to operate through the COVID-19 pandemic with its existing, elderly volunteer base.

"I was overwhelmed, I was thrilled, I was excited. I felt very inspired to move forward to make this happen for our community that we serve," said Karolyn Dobbin, who spearheaded the push to keep the food bank open.

Karolyn Dobbin spoke with CBC News on a video call inside the food bank office. (Submitted by Karolyn Dobbin)

Dobbin said it weighed heavy on her heart when she heard the food bank was going to close. 

"I knew in the weeks going forward, that the need for the food bank was not going to decrease — and if anything, it was going to increase," she said. 

"I decided to take that leadership role on myself."

Keeping health and safety in mind

On March 16, the food bank's board of directors announced on Facebook that it was shutting down, citing "with the health and safety of our volunteers and users in mind."

"Most of our people that volunteer at the food bank are senior citizens, and we felt it wasn't right to put them at risk during this time," explained Craig Hall, who is the chair of the food bank's board of directors.

"And a lot of them voiced their concerns that they felt it was time to close." 

Dobbin said the inside of the food bank office has also been reorganized to allow for more physical distancing between volunteers. (Submitted by Karolyn Dobbin)

Medical experts, including Canada's chief public health officer, say that the elderly are at greater risk of serious complications if they contract COVID-19.

Just three days after that announcement, the food bank posted another update — that Dobbin was looking to recruit new volunteers, who had two hours a week to spare to reopen the food bank in a safe way.

On March 21, the food bank reopened with a roster of 50 volunteers, and Hall estimates that more than 40 are brand new faces.

"We tried to appeal to our younger population to see if they could come forward and help," Dobbin said.

With a volunteer base recruited, Dobbin and another dedicated volunteer had to figure out exactly how they could operate the food bank while observing the principles of physical distancing.

A new, contactless system has been set up at the Gander and Area Food Bank, where clients show their ID through a window, and food is brought to a table outside the building. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The old method — where clients would congregate in the lobby — has been replaced with a new one.

Clients will show their ID through a window, and then wait for a volunteer to bring a hamper outside. They can only collect their food once the volunteer has gone back inside.

"There's absolutely no physical touching whatsoever. It's making sure that we're definitely doing social distancing," Dobbin explained.

The maximum number of volunteers allowed in the building has also been reduced to three.

Craig Hall, the chair of the food bank's board of directors, said the food bank distributes about 140 hampers a week to families in the area. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

So far, demand for the food bank's services has stayed roughly steady, but Dobbin said she's seen some new names in the past two weeks, and is expecting more. 

Luckily, they are well stocked on food.

"We've had a tremendous support in terms of having food available in our food bank, more than we often have," she said. "It looks like Christmas here." 

The group is asking now for online cash donations, as a way to further practice physical distancing — by not having to pick up cans and cardboard at the front step.

'Tremendous respect' for previous volunteers

Dobbin said the previous volunteer base has given a lot, and will be welcomed back with open arms when the pandemic — and the calls for physical distancing — are over.

"This is a population that's given a great deal to Gander over the years," she said.

Food bank volunteers posed for a photo in March 2018. (Gander and Area Food Bank/Facebook)

"I think any client and any volunteer who comes through the Gander food bank has a tremendous respect and appreciation for the volunteers who have done that." 

In the meantime, though, she's also hoping that some of the new volunteer base, who are mostly between the ages of 30 and 50, will stick around.

"I think that is actually a very positive thing for our sustainability of the food bank going forward," she said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Garrett Barry

Journalist

Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.

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