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Burnout, death threats, stigma: Inside the life of an Okanagan non-profit operator

Three women who have tasked themselves with helping others share their stories
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Crystal Hedlund (left), who operates a business, Crystal’s Baked Blessings, helps out families in need with Christmas dinners and gifts. (Submitted photo)

There’s a question that’s been weighing on Crystal Hedlund’s mind: “Who comes to help the people that help everybody else?”

The former Vernon woman owns Crystal’s Baked Blessings, a bakery business that she uses to help others, whether it’s feeding the homeless or giving a lift to a struggling family, especially around Christmas time when she bundles up dinners and gifts for families in need.

Hedlund lived in Vernon for about eight years until the rental market drove her out. Finding a house big enough for her six kids was going to cost $4,000 a month, so she moved to Canoe and has been operating there ever since.

At least once a month, she donates a custom cake to a low income family that can’t afford it.

Between her large family, her baking business and the charitable causes she pursues, Hedlund says burnout is “definitely there,” but she doesn’t have time to practice self-care to alleviate that burnout.

She says the public expects her to help others, but when she needs help herself, support is limited.

“Whenever the owners of these companies need something for themselves to keep running the company or need something even just for themselves, nobody’s willing to donate, nobody is interested in donating to help me,” she said.

“We literally bend over backwards answering phones all day and night, answering emails and messages all day, talking people off ledges, putting our own family aside to help other families … and for us not to be able to get the help that we need when we need it, it’s a little disheartening.”

Hedlund says she wishes the public would see her for what she is: a human being, capable of a lot but prone to fatigue like anyone else when taking on the task of helping others with their own time and money.

“I am a person, I’m human, you know. I need to rest.”

Hedlund says it would be nice if there were government grants available to her, “because otherwise we do feel alone. I don’t have a team of people, it’s just me.”

Carrie Lynn (the last name is a pseudonym) has been operating Food-It-Forward Okanagan, a food rescue organization, for the past two and a half years. She is applying to have the organization become a federally recognized charity.

Based in Kelowna, Lynn’s organization takes food that would otherwise go to the trash and uses it to feed nearly 10,000 people a week between Salmon Arm and Osoyoos.

“In British Columbia alone there’s five million dollars of food waste every single month. That equates to six billion dollars a year, and we have starving children in our school systems,” Lynn said.

Lynn explains that after food donors contact her, she or one of her drivers picks the food up and takes it to the places that need it. The result can be bread for school breakfast programs, ingredients for cooks at treatment centres, or prepared food for families that are struggling to maintain self-sufficiency.

“If I could get all of the food waste in the Okanagan, nobody would go hungry.”

Lynn says people can be aggressive or demanding when it comes to getting food. She’s had to deal with death threats, and violent altercations where the police have had to come defuse a situation.

As a result, she’s had to set boundaries for herself.

“I’m still willing to help feed my community, but I’m only going to do it with what I’m comfortable with and what will protect me and my volunteers,” she said.

Lynn says one of the biggest problems leading to burnout is crossed boundaries, and even though she’s made setting boundaries an integral part of her charity work, she puts 40 to 60 hours a week into the food rescue organization, on top of working full-time to pay her bills.

There are also misconceptions about small organizations that do non-profit work.

“Most people have the understanding that we are all given money, we all have an operating budget, we should absolutely be obligated to feed these people. What they don’t understand is that it takes the kindness of a community to continue to run these organizations,” she said.

Again, the question of who helps those who help others looms large.

“When the community has the mindset that they don’t have to worry and look after any of the smaller organizations, then we’re all by ourselves. Who’s looking out for us?” asks Lynn.

Lynn says a lot of the smaller organizations band together when they need help, “because they understand that that’s what community is, it takes all of us joining arms together to feed our community and to look after it.”

Echoing Hedlund, she says “people are seen as things, instead of humans.”

READ MORE: ‘Be An Angel’ campaign raises close to $500k for Central Okanagan Food Bank

Clary Lausnes and her husband have operated the All Are Family Outreach Society since 2014, serving individuals and families in need of help from Armstrong to Kelowna.

One of the major challenges the society has faced of late is securing a building to house donated goods. Money aside, it’s a challenge that stems from the stigma attached to the people they help.

“We go to try and find a building and what we hear is, ‘well we don’t want those kind of people next to us,’” Lausnes said. “There’s this idea that anybody that uses a food bank is an addicted, dirty, homeless thief, and while we don’t turn away street people, our main group of people that we help is seniors and families. But we just can’t get over this stigmatism that is out in the general public that people that come into food banks are lower than the lowest.”

Lausnes has seen it all while operating the outreach. She’s had people try to blackmail them into giving them what they want, and has dealt with people becoming physically violent and throwing things at them.

“And yet we’re expected just to sit and smile because we’re a charity and we have to be nice.”

She doesn’t do it for financial gain or recognition, as there’s none to be had. She does it because she cares about people.

Lausnes says Canadian pension rates need to go up, as she sees too many seniors living destitute.

“I have seniors that go to the grocery store and just stand in the produce aisle and cry,” she said.

Lynn and Hedlund both identify with feelings of isolation in their roles as providers for their communities. For Lausnes, it’s more of an emotional fatigue from working with people in tragic life circumstances.

“We deal with things like suicide and child abuse and marital abuse and mental health issues and hungry seniors,” she said. “If you’re lucky you can leave it behind at work, but who can leave three hungry children and just go home and forget about it? That doesn’t happen.

“The isolation I experience is more of a lack of understanding from the public that we are just humans,” she added, again reflecting the sentiments of Hedlund and Lynn.

Financial struggles are common among all of the small non-profit operators. Lausnes says donations have dropped “majorly,” and All Are Family Outreach gave out $300 more in donations than it took in, a deficit that came out of their own pockets and one that’s not sustainable. Hedlund has contacted real estate companies and car dealerships to see if they’re willing to sponsor her Christmas hampers, to no avail. Lynn is in need of a refrigerated vehicle, or even just access to one, but has had no luck to date.

The non-profits rely on donations from the community to keep going. To donate to Hedlund, email crystalsbakedblessings@gmail.com. To support Lynn, email fooditforwardokanagan@gmail.com. To donate to Lausnes, email aafoutreach@hotmail.com.

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Brendan Shykora
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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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