By Jeff Mahoney
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like the Grimsby Benevolent Fund or the way the town of Grimsby gets behind it.
It’s really a model for how grassroots can grow into grand design.
Largely thanks to the GBF, there’s hardly a social need in the town that cannot be addressed in a co-ordinated way with efficiency, sensitivity and compassion.
And it all pyramided forth, as though by some algorithm of continually self-replicating goodness, from the modest generosity of a man named Mike Barretto in 1965.
Not a rich man, Mike would out food and Christmas hampers from his basement. That gesture begat the next and so on until there was a food bank, then a retail outlet, a furniture barn. And then, in 2010, the culminating agglomeration of that basement groundswell — an 18,000 square foot building (former IGA) in which all the GBF’s services are integrated.
I spent an afternoon there recently. Here’s some of what they do. They give everyone who uses the food bank a crockpot, recipes and healthy food awareness literature. They line up heat, hydro and even mortgage payments for clients, as well as medical and dental benefits.
The GBF provides a taxi home for shoppers who have no other means of transportation. Likewise to doctor and hospital appointments. GBF pays the cab fare out of the retail revenue.
There’s not a lot of transience in Grimsby but, when someone does show up, they get a package. Backpack, flashlight, blankets, postage-paid postcard.
“We try to be proactive,” says GBF board president Jamie Stevens.
The volunteers and staff know the hidden estuaries of need and so put together back-to-school packages, including uniforms for those in the Catholic system who can’t afford them. If clients have senior students in their families, GBF arranges for formal wear for proms and graduations.
They provide clothes to wear to funerals.
“Mike always wanted to ensure people had not only the necessities of life but with dignity,” says Stacy Elia, GBF’s executive director. “He just kept going. He never took no for an answer. If someone says no today, maybe it’ll be yes tomorrow.”
The essence of the place is the wonderful symbiosis of clients, volunteers and the small staff complement. There are almost 300 volunteers and they do the work of a thousand. Alphabetizing innumerable books, CDs; pricing merchandise; organizing shelf space; untangling jewellery; weighing and larding food; repairing items.
I talked to the folks here, and to a person they mentioned the enhanced sense of purpose this place gives to their lives. The word “family” comes up a lot.
I watched Glenda Neil and her young protégé, Cassie Payne, who is a high-school student. They were trying to keep on top of the run-off from yard sales that ends up in GBF’s warehouse.
There is this bond — you can feel it, the one to the other, young and a little less young, and to the larger community.
Morgan Elliott is food bank director, overseeing battalions of volunteers who keep it all working. The food comes from everywhere, including GBF’s own community gardens at the Grimsby Church of Christ.
“It all works together,” says Morgan. “When we discuss food with clients, other needs come up.”
Like clothing. Word gets out. Magically, some kindly person shows up with a donation of 40 prom dresses.
“It’s so much more than a food bank or a retail operation. It’s a landmark of caring,” says Stacy.
While I was there, a beautiful, handmade dollhouse came in, and soon there was a huddle of volunteers and staff around it. You could see them anticipating what a nice gift it might make, perhaps for someone’s Christmas.
And I could feel it in them, like something throbbing from the very walls, this timeless impulse that energizes this entire enterprise — one that is hard to reduce to words but might be suggested by these three: Love thy neighbour.
Mike Barretto would be very proud.