Every Thursday Marsha arrives for her volunteer shift at the NorWest Community Food Centre’s weekly fruit and veggie market with her two youngest daughters in tow. The girls have a snack while she helps unload boxes and set up tables with fresh, inexpensive produce, the prices written on mini-chalkboard signs. In warmer weather, the market takes place outside in front of the centre, but once the cold winds of the Winnipeg winter set in, everyone heads indoors.
Marsha likes the work, tallying prices and purchases on a pad of paper, talking with the regulars who come by for the good deals and convenience.
But she wasn’t always this way.
“For the longest time, I just hid myself in my house,” explains Marsha, who is Metis, born and raised in Winnipeg. “I’m on disability welfare and dealing with two children who have disabilities. I have anxiety and sometimes I get in a group and my heart just beats so fast, I can hardly breathe.”
She also struggles to trust people after surviving two bad relationships with the fathers of her children and losing her kids to the Children’s Aid for a time.
But last spring when her social assistance worker encouraged her to consider volunteering at NorWest, Marsha worked up the courage to give it a try. She began at the market, then added a shift on Fridays as a server at the drop-in lunch. Recently, she’s been sticking around after the market to help out as a greeter and server at dinner.
Volunteers are encouraged to stay for the meal, and Marsha’s been pleasantly surprised that her daughters, who she describes as picky eaters, also really like the food. One of the girls is a vegetarian and Marsha often chats with Chef Grant about healthy, low-cost recipes to try at home.
“I’ve learned different ways of cooking and I’m trying to eat better. But volunteering is what makes me feel really good about myself,” she says. “I’m not just helping myself, I’m helping other people. Serving them. I used to avoid big groups. But going to NorWest has helped me with my anxiety quite a bit.”
The centre also offers Marsha a welcome reprieve from life as a single mom. Her youngest is deaf and her middle daughter struggles with a cognitive delay. Marsha says she can’t even think about looking for a job right now because she has to be available when the school calls and she needs to step in.
“It gets lonely being home with kids all the time. Especially kids who fight all day!” she laughs. “If it wasn’t for NorWest I’d be hibernating, staying away from the world. But people are so open and friendly there. I just feel better. I think it’s because I know I’m in a safe place.”