'It's a wonderful feeling': How one couple is giving back to the Daily Bread Food Bank

Stacey and Joe Berger were homeless and sleeping in their Dodge Durango when they found help at the Daily Bread Food Bank. Now they say they want to give back the kindness they experienced.

Joe and Stacey Berger came in needing food, but also found a family and a purpose

Stacey and Joe Berger relied on the Daily Bread Food Bank to get through a difficult time. The couple not only received food, but training, and best of all, a sense of community. (David Donnelly/CBC)

A husband and wife who were homeless and living in their truck, relying on a food bank for support, are now giving back by volunteering at the very place that helped them through a difficult time.

Stacey and Joe Berger, arrived in Toronto from Florida in March 2016, after Stacey's mother was diagnosed with cancer. Stacey Berger, 54, left Canada 13 years ago to marry Joe, 56, who is an  American.

Stacey had returned to Toronto because of her mother's illness and hoped to rekindle a connection with her family, but it didn't work out and they ended up without a place to stay.

"And Joe and I lived in our truck for eight days," she says. "We'd drive around and make it look like we weren't staying there."

The Bergers' story is particularly poignant with the holidays approaching, and CBC Toronto's Sounds of the Season — the annual drive to collect food and money for GTA food banks — happening on Friday, Dec. 1.

Joe says unlike in the U.S., there are few places that are open 24 hours, seven days a week in Toronto, but that wasn't the toughest part of living out of a Dodge Durango.

"When you are 6'8" it's impossible to sleep in the fetal position. I had my knees up to my chin. But it wasn't just my wife and I, we had our cat with us," he says.

During that time the couple relied heavily on the New Toronto Street Food Bank which is located at the Daily Bread Food Bank sorting facility and distribution centre in Etobicoke.

The Bergers help keep the shelves stocked at the New Toronto Street Food Bank in Etobicoke, which is located at the Daily Bread Food Bank distribution centre. (David Donnelly/CBC)

"We've developed a family here with these people,"  Joe Berger says.

He used to be a produce manager for a Walmart Supercentre in Florida, but doesn't yet have a permit to work here in Canada, so Stacey's Berger's Ontario Works cheque is their only income.

"Until we needed it, we never really thought of or used a food bank. And until you're in that position... the first time was like, I felt a little bit embarrassed," he says. 

Berger says he had a crash course in how difficult it is to make ends meet in this city.

Originally from Wisconsin, Berger and his wife lived in Florida for more than a decade. While he can't work in Canada yet, he has put his experience as a Walmart produce manager to good use as a volunteer at the Daily Bread Food Bank in Etobicoke. (David Donnelly/CBC)

"A lot of clients will come in and say their cheque, whether its [from Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program], will cover maybe just the rent and then they've got nothing for utilities, nothing for food," he says.

"What are these people doing for the rest of the month? My wife and I are in the same position."

But now, the Bergers are part of the food bank's Volunteer Action Committee, and they not only get food, but training to run the day-to-day operations at the food bank.

They volunteer three-to-four days a week, sorting donations, stocking shelves and cleaning the welcome centre where food bank clients come to get food. In return, they get a hot meal and pick up groceries. 

Stacey Berger grew up in Ontario, but left to marry Joe and live in Florida more than a decade ago. They returned in March 2016 after her mother was diagnosed with cancer. As a volunteer, Stacey Berger draws on her experience as a food bank client. ( David Donnelly/CBC)

Many food bank users are also dedicated volunteers who try to give back as much as they get. As a volunteer, Joe Berger has made many changes, applying some of his Walmart experience to keep the shelves orderly and the display areas clean.

"It's a wonderful feeling to hopefully give back what we've received," he says.

Stacey Berger, who says she has a long history of physical and sexual abuse as a child, has been diagnosed with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her anxiety and depression caused her to gain weight — at one-time he weighed more than 400 lbs, but is now less than half that.

She says her experience as a client of the food bank helps her now as a volunteer. 

"There are a lot of clients who have disabilities like me," she says. "And now  I'm not as embarrassed to use a food bank because I know they are here to help," 

The next step for the couple is to find permanent housing. Their accommodation in a shared community house runs out at the end of December and they say going back to the truck is not an option.

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One.