At the entrance of the Thornbury Foodland, a member of the local Rotary Club pushes a freshly sanitized grocery cart toward a shopper. The helpful Rotarian is wearing a blue face mask and disposable gloves along with his Rotary-emblazoned blue fleece and tan baseball cap. The shopper hesitates briefly but accepts the cart and wheels it into the store.
Last week, the Thornbury-Clarksburg Rotary Club asked the public to help the only supermarket in the community, 21 kilometres northwest of Collingwood, protect customers from COVID-19. Now, what began as a small club project has become a community effort, says John White, another Rotarian. “We could not have done this with our own resources inside our club,” says the 58-year-old retiree.
White says it was a Facebook post two and a half weeks ago from Brian Leduc, the grocery store’s owner, that prompted the group to get involved. Leduc wrote that he worried he wouldn’t be able to meet the demand for delivery service or be able to properly sanitize grocery carts and baskets. The area’s chronic labour shortage was complicating an already difficult task. “Brian, right from the very beginning, was very forthright to say that the purpose of this asking for help was not to enrich Foodland or his business. Rather, it was to provide service and that he would be making charitable contributions in recognition of all the assistance that he got,” White says. “So it made it easy for us. We knew we weren't taking jobs from anyone. We knew that we were doing something vital to keep the only mainline food store in town open.”
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Ian Arra, the region’s chief medical officer of health, says the club’s initiative is just one example of businesses and residents across Grey and Bruce counties coming together to help. The Good Food Box program, for example, is assisting older residents who are unable to shop for themselves or get food delivery. Local businesses have donated personal-protective equipment to help front-line workers. “It is very heartening,” Arra says. “And it speaks to our values in the area.”
Smaller communities have a reputation for coming together in times of need: Tracy Birtch, author of a Rural Ontario Institute report in 2017 on volunteering, describes it as “a driving force and heartbeat” of rural communities. “Entire community infrastructures have been built and historically maintained through the efforts of volunteer service clubs and citizens,” she writes.
Leduc says that demand for his delivery business grew as governments announced measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. “We usually do between 10 and 13 deliveries on Tuesdays and Fridays. Yesterday, we did 20, and we have already had at least 30 calls today. We are looking at an increase to about 80 deliveries a week,” he told CollingwoodToday.ca earlier this month. (Leduc referred TVO.org to Sobeys’ Ontario head office for comment but the company did not respond. Sobeys owns the Foodland banner.)
More residents are opting for delivery, and the area’s population has been growing. “We're seeing a lot of returning people — the snowbirds have come back to town,” White says. The community, with a year-round population of nearly 2,500, is also seeing cottagers return, says Alar Soever, mayor of the Town of the Blue Mountains, the municipality that includes Thornbury. “I live on the road right by the lake,” he says. “And I would say there's almost as many people walking up and down the road as you would see on a long weekend in the summer.”
Soon after the Rotarians started volunteering on March 18, White realized the magnitude of the task. “I worked every day for the first five days,” he says. They had only half the people they needed for sanitizing, and, he says, “We are running right now about four people doing deliveries a day, somewhere between six to eight deliveries.”
Last week, they started recruiting through social media, enlisting residents and municipal staff. Now, with more than 70 volunteers on board, sanitizing shifts are under control, White says. For delivery, the goal is to have enough drivers in case the store has to shift entirely to pickup or delivery service.
Steven Schofield, another volunteer, says the effort is well worth it. “We had that concern that the store might have to close,” he says, adding that it is also one of the few remaining places where people can get fresh air and chat with friends — “albeit at a distance.”
Schofield, 69, says that volunteers wear gloves and stay far apart; those making deliveries call before they arrive and leave packages on doorsteps. “I wear a face mask. I wear gloves,” he says. “I keep my distance from people.”
Arra says that volunteers are “cognizant of the risks, they're cognizant of the way they can protect themselves, and their main goal is to protect others as well.” He describes the effort as both “useful” and “essential.”
White has advice for other communities that may be facing similar challenges. “Get your volunteers organized — you need a lot of people to do this,” he says, adding that clear information is vital: all volunteers are given an orientation package that describes the work and commitment expectations.
He remembers his grandparents talking about toughing it out through the war years. “I’m not going to compare this to going to war — we are at war with a pandemic, but this is not a shooting war in the same way,” he says. “But it didn't take me long last week to realize that what I was doing was trying to demonstrate that I had what it took to stand up in times of need.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.