"What's the first thing you think of when you think of a food bank?" asked Mark Tennant, Supervisor of the Volunteer Program at the Good Shepherd in Hamilton.
For two weeks five recent graduates from St. Brigid Catholic Elementary School explored that question as they volunteered their time at the Good Shepherd for the 40x40 Christian Service Hours Program.
The main objective of the program is to give students an opportunity to complete their required 40 hours of Christian Service before entering high school, however Teacher Coordinator Adele Rogano explains how more importantly the experience is humbling, as it gives them a chance to give back to the community.
Every day students are stationed in the warehouse where they are responsible for sorting incoming donations like clothes, household appliances, and food.
"I didn't realize how much work goes on behind the scenes," said soon-to-be Grade 9 student Michelle Bui. "Every day we're sorting out tons of donations that come in every 10 minutes or so."
The Good Shepherd Centre on Cannon Street acts as an emergency food supply centre where qualified families can "shop" in its grocery store and stock up on 5 days-worth of food per month, and other essentials.
"Our first priority is addressing hunger needs," said Tennant, who noted that the organization has also partnered with a number of supports to help families and individuals get back on their feet.
Currently, Hamilton has the fourth highest poverty rate in Ontario.
Monthly, the Good Shepherd serves about 2,200 families, making volunteers, like the 40x40 students, crucial to the operation of the organization.
By getting a behind-the-scenes look at how a food bank works, Tennant hopes to "change the narrative" and educate the community on the true faces of poverty.
Part of that education includes breaking down the stereotypes, says Rogano. "It's about giving people dignity and not treating people who use these food banks like lesser humans."
Adding to that, Tennant emphasized how every patron that comes to the Good Shepherd is treated with respect and compassion.
For the students, the experience is eye opening and provides an opportunity to reflect on their own lives and habits, and hopefully inspires them to continue to volunteer long after they've completed their hours.
In addition to volunteering at the Good Shepherd, 40x40 students have been volunteering at the De Mazenod Door at St. Patrick Catholic Elementary School, which provides daily meals to the marginalized in Hamilton’s downtown core. Students assist in prep work for breakfast and lunch, which includes a weekly BBQ lunch on Friday.