Gayle Ireland’s journey of 35 years volunteering on the West Shore began with two weeks filling in at the Goldstream Food Bank.
She stepped in when a fellow congregation member of the United Church went to Portugal for two weeks. When the church friend broke her ankle, Ireland kept filling in. That was in 1986.
Fast forward to today and Ireland, now president of the food bank, has made her mark on the West Shore as a tireless volunteer, well known and well-loved throughout the community. She oversees a team of more than 50 volunteer staff, serving more than 600 clients at the food bank and she doesn’t take a dime for her efforts.
Still, she’s humble to a fault, and quick to point out the contributions of others.
“I’m taking this [award] for the whole team,” said Ireland. “I’ve always said, it’s not just one person in that food bank that makes it work. Everybody makes it. They’re all like spokes in a wheel. Without one spoke, the whole wheel is weak.
“It’s an amazing, wonderful group of volunteers in there. I’m so proud of them. I couldn’t do it without them. The food bank wouldn’t exist without them. The food bank is the volunteers.”
When Ireland first arrived on the West Shore from Vancouver, she didn’t know a lot about communities in need. Through her work at the food bank, that quickly changed.
She was shocked to discover that people were living in poverty in hidden places around the city: in abandoned vehicles or buildings, wherever they could.
“I really saw the underlying need in the communities that I wasn’t aware of,” she said. “It just opened my eyes to people who really really needed help.”
The Goldstream Food Bank itself was supposed to be a temporary measure. It opened in 1983 to support people in the area who were laid off during the recession. The need for its services never stopped, though, and the list of clients continues to grow.
“Here we are, how many years later … and we’re helping more clients than ever. I wish there wasn’t a need for a food bank, but I think there always will be,” Ireland said.
Poverty looks different these days, she added. The food bank serves many people who are working or receiving government assistance, but are just barely keeping it together.
“I think the demographic now is a lot more elderly, more clients on disability, and more working-challenged, if that’s the right word for it,” Ireland said. “It just takes a dental bill, a vet bill, transmission gone on your car, something … and what do you do?”
After 35 years of volunteering, she’s close with many clients in the community. She said the most challenging part of her work is when they find out a client or a fellow volunteer has passed away. But there are bright lights, too: especially when people who have struggled with difficult times come through the other side.
“We’ve had some real success stories over the years. Somebody stopped me in front of Fairway Market a couple of years ago. She’d been a single mom … she was just saying, ‘Oh Gayle, I’m just doing so great now, I want to thank you guys for helping.’
“It’s a heartwarming feeling. It’s satisfying to see the tears of relief on their face, the smiles, the little kids. It’s just wonderful,” Ireland said.
She’s endlessly grateful for the support she’s received from the West Shore community over the years. The food bank has operated rent free out of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 91 basement, for which she’s grateful to Legion president Norm Scott.
Ireland’s list of thank-yous to the community is long. From the local Guides and Scouts programs, to fundraising drives at Belmont and Royal Bay Secondary schools, to local churches and grocery stores, the support of the community has carried the non-profit organization through many decades of helping others in need.
“I think as long as we continue to get the support from everyone in the general public, and we run the food bank the way we are, we’ll be able to manage, and we’ll be able to continue helping many, many people in the future,” she said.
As for her personal hopes for the future?
“I hope that one day I’ll retire,” Ireland said with a laugh. “That’s not going to be for a while.”
Gayle Ireland is the 2021 Community Volunteer of the Year.
Nominations for the 2022 Local Hero Awards West Shore open on Feb. 25. To learn more, go to hero.goldstreamgazette.com.
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