It’s a sight you don’t expect to see: on most weekends and occasional weekday evenings, a lone woman with long blonde hair and a very strange looking backpack can be found walking the streets of downtown Whitehorse.
Barbara Quilty starts the evening on her own, but it doesn’t take long before she has a small group of people huddled around her.
More often than not, they approach her to ask about the odd looking box-like backpack she is wearing. She answers by asking if they’d like a coffee, and she pulls cups, creamers, and sugar from a pouch at her waist, and fills cups with a hose attached to the backpack.
The backpack is substantial, holding two-and-a-half gallons of coffee, and weighing a full 38 pounds, when full.
“It is in my best interest to give that coffee away, to lighten my load,” she says.
Quilty is no stranger to weight on her back. She spends most summers working in mining exploration and she loves the outdoors.
“If you like hiking in the outdoors, Yukon is the place to be,” she says.
Her downtown hikes are not, however, just an elaborate device to get out of doors. The backpack is the icebreaker to a conversation, and a way for Quilty to express the care she feels for her community. She wants to make sure people have made plans for getting home if they plan to drink. She is also there to share her story and listen to the stories of others.
“Most people love coffee and the Yukon winters are cold,” she says.
“If I randomly walked up to people on the street I don’t think it would be as well received.”
But she is being well received, not only by the public on the streets but also by the community. The RCMP has assisted her by providing items to increase her visibility at night and by patrolling regularly along her route.
While initially Quilty was buying the coffee herself, the community stepped up and now McDonald’s restaurant and the Salvation Army are supplying it for free.
“It has been amazing, supportive, and emotional,” she says.
Quilty’s own story is the bridge that makes people comfortable opening up to her. A drunk driver killed her father when she was 18, and more recently she lost a nephew, and has seen her niece’s father paralyzed in two other drunk driving events. “Awareness is there, we know it’s there.”
She says conversations are needed, because these deaths and injuries are 100 per cent preventable.
People have shared their stories with her, and some have broken down. There are not always a lot of opportunities for people to talk about how they personally have been affected by drunk driving. Quilty is providing that opportunity.
“We walk around with it,” she says.
“I could see these young teens, their eyes just looking down to the ground and this one girl said, ‘Yeah, my uncle died of drinking and driving’, and then someone else opens up and says that their mother died or their father died.”
Quilty knows what it feels like to just pretend every thing is okay. She also knows that sometimes, just knowing that someone cares is important.
“My thinking was that the police can only do so much. It is up to us now. It is a community outreach, and we as a community need to start caring for one another. We need to love each other enough to stop this, because we can. Everyone thinks it will not happen to us, but it’s happened to me three times now.
“My hope is that we can come together as a community, that we can recognize it when we see it and we can offer someone a ride home, set up the safety nets, especially for the youth. They don’t think it will happen to them.”
Apparently it is accidental that Quilty’s coffee and conversation service has coincided with the holiday party season. You can expect to see her on the streets after the holidays as well.
“As long as I live in Whitehorse,” she says.
So if you see her, don’t be afraid to stop and lighten her load.
Or yours, as the case may be.