How do we make a difference? How do we address problems that seem intractable? What can one person or even a handful of us do in response to the poverty and inequality we see around us every day? It’s a question that many struggle with: both individuals who want to make a difference, and organizations that help those affected by poverty while also “moving the needle” on broader societal issues that leave people in such precarious situations.
Last week, members of those two groups – individuals wanting to help out and non-profits that convert volunteer time and charitable givings into real impact – came together for a short time, in a way that will helpfully leave both transformed. Two groups of coworkers from the Two Twenty, organized by Carrie Catherine from Shift Development and Greer Tilford, each put in a couple of hours at the Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre (SFBLC) last week as part of Giving Tuesday. Unlike most of my fellow volunteers, I have some experience with the Food Bank through working with them over this past year on a Capacity Building Project: this was however my first time volunteering at SFBCL.
[Full disclosure: I’m still currently working with SFBLC on this project: however, they did not pay for my time volunteering last week (else it wouldn’t be volunteering, right?), nor am I being paid to write this post.]
SFBLC strives to address the issue of poverty at multiple levels, including but not limited to the provision of food hampers. For example, they operate a separate Clothing Depot where I was assigned to volunteer. Set up as a small retail shop, clients can fill up a bag with donated clothing and also receive some sundry items like laundry detergent. Visitors to the Clothing Depot pay a nominal fee of a few dollars: according to SFBLC staff, this charge was requested by those using the service when it started (as an aside, beyond one employment-related program that is supported by the provincial Ministry of the Economy, SFBLC does not receive any government funding). By receiving some of these necessities at a low cost, those living in poverty can put more of their dollars towards essentials such as food and shelter. Other efforts by SFBLC aim to move beyond “band aid” solutions and help bring individuals and families out of poverty: these include an Income Tax clinic that ensures clients receive the tax credits and rebates that they’re entitled to, nutrition programs for people living with diabetes, addictions counseling, learning programs that prepare individuals for employment, and participation in initiatives such as the Poverty Costs campaign that advocated for the creation of a comprehensive poverty reduction plan for Saskatchewan.
Returning to the questions that kicked off this post, what difference did a couple of hours of volunteering make? As Carrie noted in her reflection yesterday, the neighbourhood that both the Two Twenty and SFBLC call home, Riversdale, consists of a “complex and interesting diversity”, where someone shopping for high-quality furniture may share a sidewalk and a conversation with a SFBLC client. This stretch of 20th Street West has visibly changed even in the two years since I moved to Saskatoon, with new restaurants and shops opening and new housing coming up in the area as young professionals eschew car-dependent suburbs for walkable neighbourhoods. The new (re-)development brings up the question of how to balance growth with the needs of those who have been here for decades – people, businesses, and organizations alike – and ensuring that all can benefit from the changes taking place.
A great first step is to simply build connections between everyone who has a stake in this neighbourhood and this city. Even a brief experience in volunteering can help break down stereotypes and misconceptions of who lives here and who uses services at organizations like SFBLC, and help us recognize that we all basically are looking for the same thing – food, safety, the opportunity to make a difference for our families and our world – but some of us through circumstances beyond our control have to struggle for what others take for granted. The problems are big and complex, but fortunately the people at SFBLC, the Two Twenty, and in Saskatoon generally are amazingly creative and passionate people who have the ideas and energy to make a difference. So, what can come from a couple of hours of volunteering? Hopefully, a great relationship that will spark change and lead to a more equitable neighbourhood and city!