It’s Dec. 23, 2009 and Karen Ougden was getting ready to sit down for dinner with family and friends when her father took her aside and asked for a favour.
Bud Eissfeldt, the food hamper coordinator at the Faith Lutheran Church in Surrey, had earlier in the day received a call for help. The managers at the Brownsville RV Park in North Surrey were beginning to see how the extremely cold temperatures and poor economy were taking a toll on their residents and had placed a call to the church looking for any help to provide Christmas hampers for some of their residents in need.
Knowing the church had used up much of the food they had collected for all their registered families, Bud asked his daughter if she would be willing to take on the special project and do what she could to help.
No stranger to volunteering and helping to feed the needy, Karen and her husband Duane took it as a personal challenge. They were soon on the phone soliciting whatever food they could, and within a day had collected enough food to feed 18 families.
“When we got down there there was a couple with a child and that just blew my mind,” she said.
And being a new mother herself, she knew the difficulties they faced. The young couple eventually found housing, but the experience only seemed to solidify Karen’s resolve.
Since that first encounter, Karen and her husband have provided food, clothing and even held a fundraising event encouraging family, friends and community members to donate.
“I know it sounds so simple but often just bringing the essentials like toilet paper can make such a difference,” she said.
Working only part time at a local accounting firm and with her son now attending preschool, Karen felt she still had some extra time to give.
At the same time, two other members of her church, The Relate Church in Surrey, were doing what they could to help provide clothing to those in need. Sanja Poitras and her husband Mark decided to put their corporate jobs in Vancouver on hold and started working in various non-profit organizations, eventually founding Clothes on Wheels, a not-for-profit company aimed at distributing clothing through 125 schools in the Surrey area.
“I just sent Sanja an email asking if she needed any help sorting and hanging clothes” said Karen.
So every Wednesday, Karen would get together with Sanja and Mark and other volunteers and together they would prepare the clothes for distribution. Connecting with people seemed to be a binding thread between them.
But the Brownsville RV Park was never far from Karen’s mind, so a few weeks ago Karen decided to take Sanja on a tour of the park to meet some of the people there. One resident struck a chord.
“I had heard of the area but had never been down there,” said Sanja, “It was just one person after the next with these needs.”
Then she met Jill. And she realized she was someone who truly needed help.
Nine years ago, Jill Burgess was looking for a place to live. Her brother had recently died and left her his truck and camper. Having no bathroom, the accommodation was not ideal, however she took the inheritance and moved it to the Brownsville RV Park.
After nearly two years, the older camper had clearly outlived its life span and because of constant water leaking through the roof, and Jill found herself continuously scrubbing mould from the interior walls.
Finally, a friend offered her a motor home for a few hundred dollars.
“At first I thought ‘wow’, because it had a bathroom and a shower,” said Jill.
Sitting inside the barely 100 square feet of neatly kept but cramped living space, Jill recounts how she began to find serious structural problems in her newly acquired digs. No hot water, the floor in the bathroom was rotten, continuous water leakage and again, more mould.
“Every three days I have to pull out all the mattresses and scrub the whole trailer down,” she says. “The roof is completely rotten and can’t be repaired anymore.”
Jill sleeps where the kitchen table would be. The front driving compartment has been converted into a laundry area with a small apartment sized washer and dryer stuffed amongst boxes and clothing, with a hole cut in the side of the home to vent the dryer.
Having been a volunteer at many local food banks, including in Surrey, for many years, the 61-year-old isn’t sure if her home will make it through the winter. With every window held together with strips of duct tape and the home completely covered in tarps, the mould is beginning to take a toll on her already precarious health.
Jill suffers with serious health issues including emphysema, high blood pressure and diabetes. And living on a disability pension, after all expenses including the pad rental are paid, only a little over $200 is left over.
“She has spent so much of her life giving to others, we just had to do something,” said Sanja, who is striving to find Jill a new home.
Jill has numerous cats and a clear desire to stay in Brownsville, so Karen and Sanja have made it their mission to find Jill a new trailer or motor home and are looking for donations.
“Clearly,” says Sanja, “anything is better than what she has. We’ll do whatever we can … but we can all do so much more.”
Anyone interested in helping can contact Sanja Poitras at firstname.lastname@example.org