The Frontlines 

by Andrew McCutcheon

We continue on our weekly journey — in honour of our 50th anniversary — to answer the question: what exactly is the Kerby Centre? 

But to take a step back from that question and introduce a new one: have you ever noticed the language we use at non-profits has to do a lot with combat? 

You might not have noticed this pattern. I only did because A. I work for one, specifically as a writer and B. writers tend to overthink and be obsessed with words. 

We often say we’re on the frontlines of a battle against a certain issue, like poverty or hunger. We decide to take a stand or take aim. We make battleplans in our war rooms to eradicate society’s ills. We’re always fighting against something or other. 

We mobilize our resources against silent killers. We talk about how the vulnerable are targeted by these issues. 

And it’s always a war: a war on poverty, a war on hunger, a war on COVID, disinformation, cancer, drugs.

Now I don’t necessarily think this is a good or bad thing. I’m not in a space of making a judgement call: I think it’s an interesting way to get people to think about how we operate, how vital our work is and what it sometimes feels like when you are on the frontlines, so to speak. 

But I’m not on the frontlines. 

I’m a writer. 

If this was a war, I wouldn’t be in a foxhole. 

So, I decided I should try. 

I took the morning off one day from writing and worked at one of the Kerby Centre’s Food Markets. 

I guess I wasn’t technically a volunteer since I was still getting paid to be in the building, but for all intents, I was volunteering that morning. I worked with Senir — another Unison employee — and a smattering of other, amazing volunteers from all backgrounds. The morning was a smorgasbord of jokes, stories and work, all flavoured with a handful of different languages sprinkled in the mix. 

Started off prepping all of the food we’d be taking down to the gym to give to folks. Eggs had to be inspected — can’t give away a half-smashed carton — as well as separated bread, buns and some baked sweets into individual bags. 

It took a while. There was a lot of bread to sort: gloved hands grasping and filling and twisting and stacking. 

Then there was the issue of transport. Dozens upon dozens — into the hundreds — of loaves of bread, as well as frozen food, sandwiches and dairy, take up a lot of space. Can’t keep those adjacent to the gym There are freezers and refrigerating units across Kerby Centre, but space is at a premium: we find spots for them where we can. 

Part of the set-up for the morning markets involves taking a rolling cart and heading to the different spots where food is stored: stacking what we’ll be handing out and getting it to where it needs to go. Logistics. Lots of logistics. 

A lot of people know the saying: “the devil’s in the details” but when it comes to non-profit work? I think we should start saying: the labours in the logistics. 

Gotta get the food from different spots to the gym; gotta make sure we do it to the highest levels of food safety. Up and down elevators. Setting up tables and stacking the food. Spreading it out and arranging it so the line won’t get bogged down. Down and up elevators. Repeat. 

Then the doors open and we hand out food. 

That’s it, really.  

There’s a lot of setting up, then we have the food, and then we hand it out. 

I’d like to say that I was filled with an overwhelming spirit of charity, that it was a life-changing thing getting to hand people the bread and dairy and frozen meals they need to ensure they get their three-square meals. It would make for a better story, for sure. 

It was nice, of course! It felt good to do the work, to see the results and action of what I was doing right in front of me. But it wasn’t like people were shaking my hand, with sparkling eyes, so grateful and thankful for what we were doing. 

Of course, they were grateful and thankful! But it wasn’t like. How can I put this. 

It didn’t feel like a victory? There were no cheering crowds or clapping hands. 

And that’s when I realized something. 

When it comes to writing stories, we like to use the metaphors and language of war, because we imagine that if there is a war on something, that victory is attainable; that war could end. 

And I absolutely believe that’s true. I might be an optimist, but I do believe one day we can end things like poverty, like hunger. 

But the battles aren’t exciting. They aren’t filled with great moments of pathos. We can’t stick a flag in the ground at some point and say: “well folks, we really kicked hunger’s ass today!” 

Non-profit work is like laundry, a lot of the time. Elastics around cartons of eggs and sorting bread into bags doesn’t seem very exciting because it’s not. Sometimes doing the work isn’t exciting. But it’s absolutely necessary. 

And now I think I realize why people volunteer. 

Because even though there was no flag-planting moment, no cheering crowd when we put the tables away and the day was done. 

I knew that we did something important

There was a satisfaction similar to sitting down, a bit sore and tired, and knowing that you’ve put in the effort, you’ve done something with your hands and you’ve made the world a little bit sweeter. 

It’s not celebration guns. It’s not a surprise kiss in Times Square. 

It’s more important than that. I haven’t been able to put my finger on the why of it. But I think doing so will help us answer exactly what Kerby Centre is. 

Even though I don’t have the answer yet: I do know one thing. 

I think I’ll be helping out at the market more often. 

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Nikki