Retired South Surrey school teacher Rowena Leivo was in her 50s when she walked into the South Surrey/White Rock Food Bank with a proposition.
It was 1986, and she brought forward a suggestion that the food bank sell Expo ’86-related booklets and take a commission. It was a clever idea that might have generated a little extra cash to support the people of the Semiahmoo Peninsula.
Her idea was shot down, however, the food bank manager at the time instead offered Leivo a job – they were short on volunteers.
“I guess I couldn’t think of any reason why not, so I did,” Leivo told Peace Arch News. “From then on, I enjoyed it. I knew I was useful, I just kept on.”
That volunteer gig lasted nearly 34 years. Leivo, now 90 years old, has decided, for health-related reasons, to step down.
Described as a “force to be reckoned with” by her colleagues, Leivo has long been an inspiration for her friends who work alongside her.
Although Leivo is modest, food bank manager Jaye Murray said, she deserves recognition for playing a part in keeping the operation running smoothly throughout the years.
And while her role may have been in a volunteer capacity, there was no mistaking it, Murray added, Leivo was, indeed, the boss.
“She always wears an apron,” Murray said. “So, I got one made and I had ‘The Boss’ written on it. She was always telling people what to do.”
Like clockwork, Leivo would turn up to the food bank at 8:30 a.m. every Tuesday. She would be the first person in and one of the last to leave.
“I’m afraid that was true,” Leivo said. “(The co-ordinator) would tell you, once in a while, she had to kick me out at night. She wanted to go home. If it was something I wanted to finish up, I’d stick as long as they would allow me. When it was really busy, sometimes I did put in a nine-hour day.”
She only missed a shift when she needed a hip replacement and when her husband passed away in 2010. Even a global pandemic couldn’t keep her away.
“If you’d come in when she was here, she would be lifting banana boxes. Like, everybody would get upset with her. She’s 90 years old and she just never stopped,” Murray said.
Contrary to what Murray said, Leivo insists she didn’t lift heavy banana boxes. But in the same breath, she admits to not asking for help when something needed to be moved.
“I didn’t want to, you know… Everytime I needed something, I didn’t need somebody else to lift it. In fact, lifting was good for me. You keep your body in shape,” Leivo said.
However, she said a truck driver made it a habit to check if she needed help.
“I always appreciated that because I never asked him to do it. He always made it his business to come back and see,” she said.
Leivo popped into the food bank Tuesday (Oct. 20), her first time being there in a month. She’s left with friendships and memories of how, in some instances, the support offered by the food bank can propel someone out of poverty.
She shared a story of a young woman who was putting herself through university but didn’t have the means to purchase groceries. At that time, the food bank closed at 3 p.m., making it impossible for the young lady to attend class and make it back before it closed.
Staff made a special arrangement for the woman.
A year later, the food bank received a letter from the student, with a return address in Kamloops.
“She said, ‘I have graduated. I have a job now and I can contribute to the food bank,’” Leivo recalled. “That’s really the thing that you hope for, is that when you’re helping someone there, they’ll be able to get on their feet and move on. That one I always remembered. It made me feel very good. I thought, here’s one where there’s real success out of the whole thing.”
In sharing another story, Leivo said a catering business owner brought in a bunch of Christmas leftovers for the clients. The woman also brought a turkey carcass.
“And I thought, boy, I’d sure hate to take a carcass after somebody else had most of the meat… But, there was an older woman that came in there and she said, ‘Oh, good, turkey bones. I can make a wonderful soup with that.’
“She was so pleased. And I thought, you never know what’s appreciated by somebody else. Nowadays, we couldn’t give that out, we’d be stopped by the health people.”
Leivo says her time at the food bank has been a rewarding experience and she shared a parting message to the community.
“To my friends at the food bank, you’ve been absolutely marvellous and a great bunch to work with,” Leivo said.
“To the community, just keep supporting your food bank and helping the people that need it.”