The Gleaners Store on Canyon Street (above) and Gleaners Too on Eighth Avenue are usually buzzing with shoppers.

The Gleaners Store on Canyon Street (above) and Gleaners Too on Eighth Avenue are usually buzzing with shoppers.

Creston Valley Gleaners Society still going strong after 25 years

Web Lead

  • Oct. 26, 2013 3:00 p.m.

For the last five-plus years, change has been the only constant at Creston Valley Gleaners Society.

“But we continue to be bursting at the seams,” volunteer Jean Syroteuk said recently.

And that’s after several renovations and the addition of Gleaners Too, a property kitty-corner to the Gleaners store and food bank.

“Yes,” said manager George Goulder,” in the last five-and-a-half years we have expanded, I think, seven times.”

Creston’s volunteer-run organization accepts donations of clothing items, toys, craft supplies and household goods, all of which are resold. Proceeds after operating costs are donated back to more than 20 community non-profits. Donated food items go straight to the food bank, where they are distributed free of charge to families and individuals in need.

Is it a struggle to get local residents to donate?

“Expansions have been made necessary by the goods that are dropped off — every day of the week,” Syroteuk said. “Recently, a load was dropped off from Salmo, and we get lots of donations from up the lake. The need doesn’t go away, and we continue to learn about new organizations that request our funding, which is excellent, because then we can turn money back into the community.”

A walk into Gleaners store at 807 Canyon St. is a testament to the many volunteers who sort, clean, price and display goods. No musty, stale smells here, or mounds of goods in disarray. It’s as professional a retail operation as one is likely to find anywhere.

Money collected from sales also helps fund the food bank, which might just be the country’s only self-funded food bank.

“Our biggest single cost is food,” Syroteuk said.

That cost is dropping, though, thanks to donations received by what is now called Gleaners and Friends. Goulder has found previously untapped sources of food that could help reduce annual food bank costs by as much as $50,000.

“Sometimes all it takes is asking,” he said with a smile.

In addition to supporting families and individual, the food bank contributes to day care lunches and school breakfast programs.

“Day care lunches are supplemented by the food bank so that the children have a more nutritional lunch,” Syroteuk said. “All of the schools pretty much offer daily breakfast programs so we supplement those with finances and extra food from Gleaners and Friends.

“TAPS (Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors) has been one of our biggest beneficiaries because we like to support the elderly. We pay their rent and other monthly costs. We know that in many other communities in our province that program is not running, so we are very fortunate to be able to help keep it going.”

Gleaners also sponsors a students’ retreat that is co-ordinated by Interior Health nurses. It pays for hall rental, transportation and food costs.

“It’s an amazing program,” she said.

Additionally, seven $1,000 education bursaries are awarded annually, to high school and college students. Support was provided to help establish a 4-H poultry club and the Little Chefs program at College of the Rockies.

“We try to provide healthier lifestyles for some children that may not have that opportunity at home,” she said. “I think we are really trying to promote the importance of food and eating well.”

Even when Gleaners and Gleaners Too aren’t open to the public, the facilities buzz with activity. A roster of 100-plus volunteers helps keep the operation running.

“There are probably 20-30 volunteers here every weekday,” Goulder said.

Gates to the parking lots are open from 1-5 p.m. on the weekends and all day during the week. Monitors accept the donations, making sure that Gleaners isn’t being used as a landfill alternative. The additional security was a response to help reduce costs and the headache of making regular runs to the landfill.

“Our dump fees were astronomical, and the RDCK doesn’t give us a break (they’re about the only ones that don’t),” Goulder said. “Things have been much improved by the monitoring.”

Of course not all donations can be sold locally. Every five or six weeks a truckload of more than 10 tons of clothing, linens, and shoes is shipped off to the Lower Mainland, where all items are recycled.

“Over the last five-and-a-half years we have recycled more than a million pounds of goods,” Goulder said. “That’s incredible.”

The challenge is to keep pace with the donations, sorting what can be sold in the stores, what can be sold in a different season and what can be shipped off to be sold in bulk.

“This morning at Gleaners Too, three or four of us were working for four or five hours because we were just plugged with dropped-off items,” Syroteuk said.

Items are sorted, those that need it are washed (all stuffed toys are laundered) and then priced, typically at about 10 per cent of the retail value.

“Even on open days, donations are coming in and people are working to deal with those,” she said. “It’s a revolving door. We have three sets of washers and dryers going all the time.”

Some community groups raise money by volunteering for special needs. When high school and cadet groups are hired to load recyclables onto a truck, they get a $150 donation. Each truckload sent off to Maple Ridge nets Gleaners about $2,500.

“We have tripled what we get in back from them,” Goulder said. “Some is resold, lots is used for medical rags. Some might end up overseas — we don’t really know. If something is out of style it might not sell here, but if someone in a Third World country needs a shirt, they don’t really care about style.”

Creston Valley Gleaners Society has grown dramatically since its inception 25 years ago, when three women organized to pick up excess local produce to distribute to those in need.

“Can you imagine what our landfill would be without all that we recycle through here?” Syroteuk asked.

Goulder said Gleaners also works with other local recyclers. About 30 pickup loads of electronic items are delivered annually to New Life Furniture and Recycling. Cardboard and metal goes to other recycling businesses.

“We are probably the biggest recycling hub in the Kootenays, bar none,” Goulder said. “As far as we know, we are the only self-funding food bank in North America. We raise all our own funds. We don’t get any government grants.

“Our goal eventually is to have a blueprint of what we do and be able to go around to other towns, especially with food banks, and see if our model might work for them.

“This is an amazing place. I come from Calgary and I’m just blown away with Gleaners. Nothing compares to this place — it doesn’t stink or smell mouldy. The dedication here is amazing. And people in those other places get paid, so you think they would run better. But they don’t.

“We’re all about helping other organizations. And if we see a good idea elsewhere we aren’t afraid to try it.”

The volunteer effort is remarkable. Volunteers put in more than 33,000 hours last year. Despite their efforts, though, information about Gleaners and how it works needs to be continually reinforced.

“It’s a slow process of educating people and it never stops,” Syroteuk said. “We encourage individuals who think only low income people should shop here to come and volunteer. Then they see that there is so much stock rolling through here that we never run out.”