Community Impact

Interview with Laurie O'Connor, ED of Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre

Laurie O'Connor
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How did you start work in the social profit sector?

When we returned from Australia I decided that I would stay home with my son until he was in first grade (he was two when we got back) so I decided to do some extra study. I did an after degree program at SIAST in Human Resources and when my son started grade one I started looking at private sector positions. I didn’t find any that fit with me, but I heard about a job at the Saskatoon Food Bank & Learning Centre within the learning programs and I decided that I might like to apply. The job was the Learning Centre Director and it was a maternity leave. As a teenager I worked with my parents in a food bank in small town Ontario, and I remember thinking there has to be more than this for folks. After about two weeks here I told my husband that I felt like I was home. That was thirteen years ago, and this organization has given me so many opportunities to grow alongside it.

 

What is your role at the Saskatoon Food Bank & Learning Centre? What does that role encompass?

I'm now the Executive Director. Mostly my role includes fundraising, public relations, direction for programming and board support. I also get to support food banks across the province with Food Banks of Saskatchewan and I am involved in national work with Food Banks Canada. A big part of what I do here also includes collaborative work around poverty reduction or elimination, and I love being able to work with and learn from all the amazing social profit leaders in this city.

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

It's about building relationships, in so many ways. Whether meeting with a donor, a board member, a colleague or a staff member it is about making a connection, and building on that connection. There are many meetings, especially since the pandemic as we try to navigate all the changes we need to implement, while supporting others. It’s important to make time for reading and learning, which is not always the easiest, but without these then forward progress can't happen. There are technical things like reports and finances, and those are important to fit into each day to be able to stay on top of where the organization is heading.

 

How many people does the Saskatoon Food Bank & Learning Centre serve?

We serve around 18,000 per month; people can visit the food bank twice in a month, so we do on average 7100 hampers per month. But we do so much more than food hampers: each day we have around 20 folks in our building who are learning in our literacy or employment programs, and more doing online nutrition learning and in the summer months so many people are in our garden patch learning and volunteering. Hundreds of people access our Clothing Depot each month as well.

 

How many volunteers work with your organization, approximately?

Pre-COVID we had around 1800 hours per month of volunteer labour, and on average 600 volunteers in the building each month. We hope that when we can fully welcome folks back to the building that all of them will come back.

 

How has COVID-19 impacted your work days?

That is a difficult question, but from a very fundamental baseline it has deeply affected the people we serve. It has decreased people’s ability to access food in so many ways, and has impacted those who are vulnerable more than others. All of the things that we knew about poverty have been illuminated by the pandemic. Operationally we have increased cleaning frequency, we now have plexi-glass barriers between staff and clients, and staff and each other, we all wear masks and we ask everyone coming into the building to do so (which we provide). We've increased reminders for staff and volunteers to follow COVID protocols over our public announce system, and we try to communicate with staff about mental health supports more frequently.

We've shifted our model for providing food to include some delivery and connection to other agencies, too.

 

What's it like working at the Saskatoon Food Bank & Learning Centre?

Working here is both incredibly rewarding and incredibly heart wrenching. I learn so much each day from folks who access our services, and from the folks who work here, but after so many years it is tough to continue to see how stubborn poverty really is. With good collaborative work I know we can work toward a different outcome, and I hope to see that collective action from agencies in Saskatoon continue. I'm so glad that we are able to provide the services we do, but my real hope is that the need isn’t so great in our community, that the systems which continue to keep folks in poverty can change.

 

How do donations impact the people who use the services your organization provides?

First and foremost we simply could not do the work we do without the support of caring individuals in the community. We don’t have core funding from any level of government and although the City of Saskatoon and the Provincial Government provide some program funding, we are keeping the lights on here with the help of the citizens of Saskatoon. Without donations of food and funds none of our programs could fulfill the need. So the impacts of donations are many, children get to have milk and cereal with breakfast before going to school, women get to have menstrual products even if their budget doesn’t allow for it, employment readiness is available to those who are ready to work, income taxes are completed. The benefits of our programs are that people are connected to the things they need to survive, maybe even thrive.