Brad Lesiuk and Tara Edkins of Island Savings at a “pop-up” hotdog sale to benefit Full Cupboard.

Brad Lesiuk and Tara Edkins of Island Savings at a “pop-up” hotdog sale to benefit Full Cupboard.

Ladysmith proving once again, it’s a small town with a big heart

It takes a town full of volunteers to ensure no child goes hungry

Mike Youds Special to the Chronicle

Picture a table around which 350 people are seated, awaiting a meal you’re in charge of preparing.

Ladysmith Food Bank manager Diane Stokes doesn’t have to pretend; essentially, that’s her job as a volunteer for the past decade. She not only rises to the task, she enjoys it, and with good reason.

Stokes is not alone, conducting a virtual army of other volunteers, including her husband Ray. She has the direction of Ladysmith Resource Centre Association (LRCA) — which embraces the belief that access to safe, healthy food is a fundamental right — and her immediate “team,” including a nutritionist to help order food, a statistician to keep track of numbers. Then there are the volunteers, packers and drivers, ensuring the food reaches its target.

As the circle extends into the community, individuals, groups, organizations and companies create a matrix of support for an institution that opened its doors only 20 years ago. The food bank and its clients — almost half of them children — benefit from a tradition that goes much farther back.

“Ladysmith is probably one of the most generous communities around,” said Stokes when asked about the notion of giving back in Ladysmith. “Donations just flow in and this year has been exceptional.”

There is a strong sense of generosity and volunteerism in town, perhaps owing to the neighbourliness of a smaller community with a high proportion of residents who know each other well. Community engagement tends to be a hallmark of close-knit populations, though it’s not necessarily a given.

Operating on largesse, Ladysmith Food Bank feeds between 250 and 350 people weekly, a figure that’s remained unchanged since Stokes has been in charge. And charity doesn’t always come without sacrifice on the part of the donor.

“Absolutely. You have no idea. People may not have enough money to get by, yet they will donate their last $20 knowing they’ve got money coming in. I’m very aware of that. It always surprises me how much people care about people who don’t have what they have.”

While Christmas and charity go hand in hand, not all community food banks have an easy time, competing with many causes while building inventory for leaner winter months. That’s not an issue in Ladysmith.

“We usually get in the range of 5,000 lbs. of food,” Stokes said of the effort overall. “We’re not worried.”

Halloween seems to scare up donations as well. Daphne Swift, organizer of the Big Shop of Horrors Haunted House in Duncan, recently handed over a share of proceeds, the equivalent of 5,823 meals thanks to the buying power of the food bank, which in effect triples the value of a financial donation.

Even before Halloween, Ladies Healthcare Auxiliary volunteers in Ladysmith are out collecting food in October. They usually bring in about 600 lbs. of food donations. This year they outdid themselves with 800 to 1,000 lbs.

Then there’s the local seniors who held a competition and brought in 650 lbs. The 5 km Cinnamon Bun Fun Run — its registration sold out in 100 minutes — brings in money as well as non-perishable food donations from runners and walkers.

Duncan’s food bank holds its Stuff the Truck campaign Dec. 3-7 in which companies can donate a pallet of food worth $500. Thirty pallets were sponsored last year with the food distributed to five food banks in the region, including Ladysmith’s.

The Duncan Big House of Horrors contribution came in through the efforts of Full Cupboard, a charitable program that has evolved over the last six years at First West Credit Union.

“It’s a signature cause we have adopted as part of giving back to the community,” said Deb Trockstad, financial services advisor. As the name implies, their goal is “to make sure no Island child goes hungry.”

The concept is to take a holistic approach to what credit unions are all about, she explained. It began as GIFT — Growing Island Families Together — and evolved into Full Cupboard after Island Savings became part of First West Credit Union. Children have been the focus all along, but Full Cupboard takes the investment a step further in a partnership with Food Banks B.C.

“For us, Full Cupboard is about making sure there is consistency and continued support from the community,” “It’s a year-round giving project for us.”

Employees wear jeans on Friday while each making a $5 donation to the cause. They hold “pop-up” hotdog sales and keep donation boxes on their desks to keep the charity top of mind. On Dec. 13, they host Paint Nite at the legion in support of the food bank.

Ladysmith and District Credit Union has its regular “jeans day” fundraiser, said Linda King, executive assistant. At Christmas, they typically choose two local families and build hampers through employee donations, matched by management. Their biggest community contribution is one that lifts a lot of hearts, the fireworks show that immediately follows the Kinsmen Light Up Parade. LDCU staff also host a barbecue in front of the credit union during Olde Time Christmas and Candlelight Walk, the family-friendly event held by the downtown business association on Friday, Dec. 7.

Another important LRCA program at this time of year Christmas Cheer, operated separately from the food bank. Through family sponsorships provided by residents, companies and churches, all the makings of Christmas dinner are delivered to about 150 families in the area.

Barb Champagne, who has worked for LRCA for 17 years, recalled one Christmas when a food hamper not only helped a local couple but inspired giving in return. They had always done well until the husband was injured and they lost their income.

“All of a sudden, things went down the tube,” Champagne recalled. “She was just devastated.”

Christmas Cheer provided them with a hamper for which they were more than grateful. A few months later the woman arrived at LRCA, willing and able to volunteer for a variety of tasks.

“She gave back tenfold.”

Experiencing hard times directly or indirectly enables people to imagine what it would be like if they were in a similar situation, she said.

For service clubs, it’s the busiest season of the year. Fraternal Order of Eagles always contributes to the food bank cause. Ladysmith Rotarians have been big supporters of the food bank for years, said past president Gerry Beltgens. They’re the ones who deliver to Christmas Cheer clients.

“We just drive,” Beltgens said. “I call it the last mile.”

The Rotary Club also supports Christmas With Santa, a celebration for families and caregivers with children up to age 6, held at Aggie Hall by Ladysmith Family and Friends each year. They need two seatings to accommodate everyone.

“It’s our signature event,” Beltgens said. “It’s all hands on deck.”

After the Light Up parade is over, Ladysmith Kinsmen hold their yearly fundraising bonfire at Transfer Beach during the Mount Brenton Power and Sail Squadron sail past on Saturday, Dec. 8.

Meanwhile Interact and Rotaract, junior clubs for younger Rotarians, are busy before the holidays, taking part in food drives and Coats for Folks.

“That’s something we’re very proud of. You know what? It’s growing future leaders and community activists,” Beltgens said.