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High need for Bowen Island's food bank

As the cold weather adds to the financial strain on local families, the shelves at the food bank sometimes get depleted overnight.

As the cold weather adds to the financial strain on local families, the shelves at the food bank sometimes get depleted overnight. The food bank's administrators have put a call out to the community and island residents are stepping up to fill the need. One of them is Lynn Ellis-Williams, the director of the Penrhyn Academy of Music, who has made it a tradition to donate the proceeds of her annual Christmas recital to the local charity.

Ellis-Williams' concert will be held at Cates Hill Chapel this Saturday, Dec. 3 at 2 p.m. and everyone is welcome to attend the performance by the Madrigals, the Artisan Squires and Penrhyn Academy students. Ellis-Williams said, "Suggested donation for adults is $10 and every penny goes to food bank."

For Ellis-Williams, it started about five years ago. She said, "When my twin brother, Gordon Ellis, passed away, we found out about all the work he did for the seniors' centre and the food bank in Kamloops." Ellis-Williams was surprised to learn that her brother had used part of his pay cheque to make a difference in his community. She said, "People came forward and told us how wonderful [Gordon] had been. None of us knew my brother was very private. I wanted to continue his work here in small way."

Efforts like this are much appreciated. Shelagh McKinnon, the minister of the Bowen Island United Church, has been involved in the food bank for a long time. She said, "It's a pantry-style food bank. The door is always open; the light is always on. People can just go in and pick up food, or drop something off."

"We monitor the volume daily," McKinnon said. "And we are aware that this is a time of high use."

The demand has been consistently high for at least a year but in the winter it increases. McKinnon said, "People have to pay more for hydro. If you have kids in school, there are more costs this time of year. Where do you find leeway in the family budget?"

McKinnon said that people expect those who use the food bank to be on welfare but that is not always the case. She said, "Some of them are working. But it was just announced that both hydro and ferry fares are going up. If you are trying to make ends meet, something has to give. People end up going to the food bank because [turning the heat off] is not an option."

McKinnon says that being in financial distress can be isolating but she has also seen a lot of kindness. She said, "Some people put some nice Christmas things on the shelf. Last year, someone brought a box of turtles. These are our friends and neighbours who need help and they also want to celebrate Christmas. Bless those unknown angels."

"It often helps to be aware when you are shopping. Then you can put something extra in the box," McKinnon says. She also thinks that giving to the food bank can set a powerful example to the kids.

Kristin Jarvis agrees. The mother of two shops at Costco and finds it easy to share some of the food that comes in bulk. She said, "The vestibule at the church is always open, dropping off food is no big production." Jarvis often brings along her daughters, Sofie and Oceana. At one point, the family went to donate food and Sofie wanted to know what was there for kids to eat, Jarvis recalled. She said, "Now the girls like to choose some of the food. They might pick Annie's pasta or peanut butter and jam."

Sofie, who is now six, took giving one step further after she had seen a homeless person on the streets in Vancouver. She asked the friends who attended her fifth birthday party to make a donation to the food bank. Since Sofie was turning five, she suggested $5 but most people gave more.

Cash donations play a large part in the operation of the food bank. McKinnon recalls the way it was started 20 years ago. "I came over as a volunteer and the food bank was only a book case," she said. "It was started by Rev. Wendy Reid with the help of Angie McCulloch and Sue Clarke. Sue is the one who still monitors the food."

From those humble beginnings, the food bank has continued to grow. Now, on top of the community's food donations, it purchases food for about $1000 per month. Sue Clarke confirmed that she has had to replenish the stock on a daily basis in the last 18 months. She said, "It's increased so much that the funds that used to last three months are now used up in two." In addition to the non-perishable items, the food bank receives bread from the bakeries, mainly the Ruddy Potato, and Clarke purchases eggs twice a week to provide protein.

"The shelves were really full on Sunday," Clarke said. "They were overstocked. And on Monday morning, the food was almost gone." But Clarke makes sure that there is always something there. She said, "When it started, it was our mandate was to provide emergency rations for people in need. That hasn't changed."

People who cannot pick up food but want to make a contribution can drop off a cheque made out to the Bowen Island United Church Food Bank. They can leave it at VONIGO or mail it to the United Church, 1120 Miller Road. A charitable receipt will be issued. Clarke said, "The need is not easing up. We also have people who have approached me to ask for a food voucher and I haven't been able to do that." In previous years, Clarke has issued emergency money at Christmas time. She said, "We gave out $50 or $100 vouchers for the general store." Clarke adds that the vouchers have usually gone to half a dozen regulars. She said, "Some of them don't have any work in the winter."

Funding from other sources has also been reduced but Clarks said that she is grateful for what the food bank is getting. She added, "And Lynn Ellis-Williams' fundraiser is fantastic."

Ellis-Williams has told her students a month in advance about the food bank fundraiser. Her effort is not limited to the Christmas season her spring concert also benefits the food bank. Both 2010 concerts raised over $1,200 and last year's Christmas event yielded about 450 pounds of food. Ellis-Williams said, "People are good at donating the ticket price and some even give more."

Last week, Ellis-Williams encountered someone at the food bank. "I've met a woman in there and she was so apologetic," Ellis-Williams said. "She said she was going to give it back next week and I thought, 'No need to apologize, please take.'"

She added, "I wish people didn't judge. These are our friends and neighbours who simply don't have enough to get to the end of the month. People pull up late at night, in the dark."

At the Penrhyn Academy recital, Ellis-Williams' students will perform in various groups according to their ages and there will be a few solos. After performances by the Madrigals and the Artisan Squires, the audience will be invited to join in and sing carols to celebrate the season.