I’ve been around Creston long enough to remember when a few people with very big hearts started the Creston Valley Gleaners Society. They knew there was a need but, more importantly, they also knew there was an abundance of food available in this valley. All that needed to be done was to tap into the resource. At harvest time, those volunteers and their friends were out in the fields and orchards, looking every bit like modern day characters from paintings by Jean-Francois Millet or Camille Pissarro.
Those were the early days of food banks, which were seen as a temporary solution to a problem that needed to be addressed — a poor economy in the 1980s brought hunger and homelessness into the mainstream of Canadian life. Surely once the economy picked up the need for food banks would disappear and people without homes would find affordable accommodation.
It seems laughable now, a naive and overly optimistic thought. It didn’t have to turn out this way, though. North American governments were dominated by business friendly governments led by men like Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney and in their enthusiasm to help boost the fortunes of businesses, they ignored the growing needs of people who had been put out of work, first by a slow economy and then by free trade agreements that destroyed North America’s manufacturing sector. Provincial governments struggled, too, and closures of mental health facilities put more people out onto the streets. To say that the 1980s didn’t leave much of a positive legacy is to put it mildly.
At the community level, though, people tend to be creative and resilient, finding ways to cope and to help those in need. Gleaners grew to become one of the Creston Valley’s largest non-profit organizations, so successful that it has continued to operate one of Canada’s few, if not only, food banks that do not rely on government funding. The Christmas hamper fund, once a small program of the Creston Ministerial Association, has also grown like Topsy. Cash donations roll in at a remarkable rate (the Advance’s annual Community Christmas Card raised more than $7,600 from generous readers this year) and this week nearly 400 hampers were packed for distribution in a huge volunteer effort.
To live in the Creston Valley is to be able to witness, on a daily basis, generosity in action. When a family has a child in need, friends and neighbours step up to organize fundraisers and local businesses reach into their tills or onto their shelves to donate. When a house burns down, friends and neighbours step up with temporary accommodations and gifts of furniture and food. When programs like the Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors threaten to disappear, thanks to the complete and utter lack of foresight by government agencies, donations seem to drop out of the sky to help sustain them. The list goes on. And on. And on.
In his early days as an MLA, Corky Evans told me about the astonishing difference in workload between rural and urban MLAs. Not only do rural representatives have to cover huge areas, but their constituents have much more regular interaction with their governments than do their urban counterparts.
“I have 10,000 water licences in my constituency,” Evans said as an example. Each holder of a water licence (or water well) had made a direct connection with the provincial government by filling out applications and getting approval. Urban residents pay their utility bills and turn on the tap.
Rural living appeals to people who don’t need everything to be easy, for their needs to be met by governments and institutions. They take it as a given that they will have to drill for water and service pumps and dig septic fields. They know the snowplow might not arrive before they head off to work or take the kids to school. They might not want fire protection services that could one day save their home and will at the least lower their insurance costs. Heck, they might not even buy insurance.
But those same people are the first to reach into their pockets when a neighbour is in need, the first to organize renovations to a house when a neighbour requires wheelchair access, the first to offer a ride to someone needing cancer treatment in Kelowna. Problems of friends and neighbours are their problems, too.
And aren’t we lucky to live in such a place? I suspect those original Creston Valley gleaners who stooped to dig potatoes or stretched to pick apples back in the 1980s would have mixed emotions if they could see how those early efforts have evolved. They would be proud that their legacy of volunteerism has continued, and that the desire to look out for friends and neighbours is unabated. But they might also be disappointed that in the 21st century there are still people who need a hand up, but have to settle for a handout.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.