Four years after she officially retired, Robyn Ward-Clark still pulls two shifts a week doing what she’s always done: working with people.
Following 31 years of “fascinating, but fairly stressful work” in the airline business, she called it quits in 2005. For the next five years, she worked part-time in two local flower shops while caring for her aging parents.
Along the way, she also logged countless hours as a volunteer, including canvassing door-to-door for the Canadian Cancer Society every April for a quarter-century.
And even knee-replacement surgery on both legs hasn’t stopped Ward-Clark from pitching in as a regular volunteer with the Whitehorse food bank.
In fact, executive director Stephen Dunbar-Edge describes her as one of the food bank’s “superstar” volunteers.
“ There’s something about working in an environment where you can do something and see an immediate result,” she says.
“ You know when you finish a shift on any given day that you’ve made a difference to somebody, a little tiny difference.”
Ward-Clark says the food bank clientele — which has “risen and risen and risen” in the four years she’s been there — is an “amazing mix” of people she might not have met otherwise.
“ You get people who are homeless. You get people who have just come upon hard times, have maybe come out of a bad relationship, maybe lost their house,” she says.
“ There are people who work seasonally, who’ve been laid off.”
Ward-Clark understands that seeking assistance from the food bank can be tough.
“ Some of them are embarrassed about being there,” she admits.
“ It’s humiliating for women who have kids, who come from the normal, middle-class suburban life and are forced to come in and ask for help. It’s excruciatingly difficult for them, and hard for us, too.”
Ward-Clark vividly recalls an encounter from her early days on the job.
“ One of the first people who came in was somebody that I knew, which was very stressful for both of us,” she says.
“ It was somebody I went to school with, who had just come upon a difficult time and needed that little extra help.”
Contrary to some people’s beliefs, the food bank doesn’t dole out food to the same people day after day. Clients can visit once a month for a three-day emergency allotment of foodstuffs and other essentials such as toilet paper.
“ People come in and they get their basic bag, according to how many people are in their family. And then they have an optional list of items they can choose from,” Ward-Clark explains.
“ We also do something which is kind of neat, which we’ve done for a couple of years,” she says.
“ We make up a lunch kit for three days for children in school, and we provide them with three juice boxes and six snacks — granola bars, peanut-free stuff, little crackers. We give those to every family, one for each child in the family.”
Ward-Clark says the food bank’s semi-annual food drives often yield some surprising donations, which go in a special window for clients interested in something beyond the basics.
“ There’s everything in there, from marinated artichoke hearts to baba ghanoush in a bag — anything you can imagine,” she says.
“ You’d be surprised at what eclectic palates a lot of our clients have.”
The job is certainly not without stress. The Thursday after Remembrance Day, for example, the food bank served about 160 families, half of them on Ward-Clark’s lunchtime shift alone.
“ It’s very disturbing to see 80 families come in three hours, looking for food.”
Still, she values the food bank’s welcoming environment and the personal relationships she has developed.
That includes an elderly couple she took under her wing after the husband had a stroke following surgery and lost his job.
“ It just changed their life in a heartbeat. When they would come in, I would give them a few extra things,” she admits in a conspiratorial whisper.
“ On my birthday, they brought me a card and lovely potted amaryllis they had started in the spring. And I wept.”