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Growing Communities: Volunteer roots run deep among law alumni

By Sarah Trefiak

According to a 2012 Statistics Canada report, Saskatchewan had the highest rate of volunteerism among all provinces and territories with 58 per cent of adults aged 15 and over participating in volunteer work in 2010.

Undoubtedly, that same volunteer spirit is alive and well at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law where each year a number of students volunteer with organizations like CLASSIC, ProBono and the Canadian Bar Association–Saskatchewan, and organize events such as Legal Follies to raise money for various local charities.

But what happens when our students graduate and leave to begin careers across the province and country?

It appears the volunteer bug sticks with them.

Three College of Law alumni spoke with of Note about the volunteer roles they have undertaken in their respective communities and the lessons they have learned along the way. It should be noted that when looking for alumni to fit the criteria of this story, it didn’t take long to create an extensive list of committed volunteers who have taken leading roles in charitable and nonprofit organizations. Here, we chose to profile three individuals who have committed their time to organizations who aim to end hunger.

Good food, good people

Candice Grant (LLB’08) is proud to be part of a community organization that is taking the lead when it comes to providing good food to the residents of Saskatoon. For more than four years she has been a member of the board of directors for CHEP Good Food Inc., a Saskatoon-based organization that works with children, families and communities to improve access to good food and promote food security. In 2013, she took on the role of board chair.

Grant, who is currently an associate at Robertson Stromberg, has carried on the firm’s long and positive relationship with CHEP. “Our firm has been involved with CHEP for quite some time and it’s been a strong relationship right from the start,” she said.

CHEP runs more than 16 programs including community gardens, fresh food markets and nutrition education programs with the goal of ensuring that nutritious, safe food is always available for everyone no matter what their circumstances are. “CHEP runs a number of different programs and you can really see the impact of those programs across the community,” said Grant.

Community gardenOne program that appears to really be taking off is the community gardening program. This summer CHEP had 34 gardens across Saskatoon compared to 25 the previous year. The gardens range in size from a dozen plot spaces to more than 50. Plot sizes range considerably but are usually between 150 and 200 square feet. “CHEP’s involvement varies depending on the garden, but it includes anything from setup to co-ordination of the planting, weeding and harvest,” explained Grant.

Another program where Grant sees a direct influence on the community is the collective kitchen program, which brings together small groups of people, including new Canadians and single mothers, to help them learn how to make a meal. “What’s great about the collective kitchen program is that participants not only prepare a delicious meal to take home to their families, but they also take home the skills of planning and preparing a nutritious meal.”

During her time on the board, Grant has seen a number of exciting developments at CHEP including the move to Station 20 West, a community enterprise centre in Saskatoon’s inner city, and the opening of the Boxcar Café. The café operates as a public enterprise, provides CHEP with the opportunity to showcase delicious healthy food at affordable prices, and offers training and employment opportunities for vulnerable young adults.

While it’s easy for Grant to see numerous ways CHEP is positively changing the community on a daily basis, she said one of the best moments came during a guest speaker presentation during a CHEP annual meeting. The speaker was a young Aboriginal woman who grew up in a core neighbourhood and was currently attending university. “She spoke about how CHEP’s programming had helped her and her family through her entire life and how she wouldn’t be in the position she was without it. Her speech was so meaningful to me—she was such a concrete example of the outstanding benefits the organization can provide.”

Grant’s commitment to volunteerism began during her time at the College of Law when she was a big sister with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Saskatoon and has remained a constant since. She now serves on the board of the Saskatoon Public Library and is the chair of the School Community Council at Dundonald School. While volunteering takes a good portion of Grant’s time, she said it helps that Robertson Stromberg is always very supportive of lawyers who want to give back to the community. “There’s almost an expectation that you will find something you are passionate about, find an organization that matches those interests, and that you will advance yourself through volunteer work through that organization.”

Lawyers feeding the hungry

Originally from Thornhill, Ont., Brendan Holness (JD’11) has been volunteering with Lawyers Feed the Hungry for the past 18 months. Initially, he just wanted to become more involved with the legal community in Toronto, but he has found that offering his time has provided that and so much more. 

Lawyers Feed the Hungry was established in 1998 and operates in Toronto, Windsor, London and Ottawa. The program provides more than 100,000 hot and healthy meals each year to Toronto residents in need. The meals are served four days a week at Osgoode Hall in the Law Society of Upper Canada’s cafeteria.

Brendan Holness (JD'11)A family friend who was involved in the establishment of the program suggested Holness volunteer there—and he was glad he did. “The program has been rewarding in two ways. First, I’ve formed great friendships with other volunteers who have always been willing to share a few wise words from their working experiences,” said Holness. “Second, with respect to our guests, it’s rewarding when you run into a regular patron downtown and they thank you for the time and effort you put into the meal.” 

Holness usually volunteers during the Sunday morning brunch and helps out by doing anything from greeting guests, serving orange juice, coffee, cereal, or the main meal, to co-ordinating meal servers and preparing meals in the kitchen. Since beginning his work with the program, Holness has seen the number of guests explode from 200 to upwards of 600 during the summer. While he finds it exciting to have so many people come for Sunday brunch, he said it has taken a toll on the program’s finances. “Unfortunately, we have had to cut back on expenses like desert and bagged lunch to keep the program on Sundays operational.”

Knowing that demand for programs helping the less fortunate exceeds supply, Holness also volunteers for the Out of the Cold program which provides safe refuge, hospitality and emergency shelter to the homeless community in Toronto during the winter months. One of his most rewarding moments came while volunteering at that program. “A table of regular Sunday brunch guests walked in from the cold and when I greeted them at the door, they recognized me and invited me to sit with them for the meal,” he recalled. “Hearing their stories that evening was remarkable.” 

Holness is quick to admit that other than being a part of the Law Students’ Association at the college, his history of volunteering is limited, but it is something he strongly believes in. “Volunteering hasn’t always been a part of my life, but giving back has always been encouraged by my family whether it be in the form of donating money or donating time.”

Although he may not have many years behind him when it comes to volunteering, he does see it as a large part of his future as he continues on his career path, recently having joined Anderson Wilson in Toronto as an associate. “Volunteering may not be a large part of the culture here, but maybe it will be my responsibility to build that culture for the future.”

Making a daily impact

Like Candice Grant, Stathy Markatos (LLB’02) is proud to carry his firm’s tradition of volunteering. He was introduced to the Regina Food Bank when he began working with MacPherson Leslie and Tyerman LLP (MLT) in 2003.

“The firm has a long history with the food bank as it’s one of our charities of choice,” explained Markatos. “We hold monthly fundraisers for the organization at our office and at least once a year a large group of lawyers, staff and their families go to the food bank to volunteer in whatever way is needed.”

Stathy MarkatosMarkatos said that before he began working at MLT, he had no idea of the scope of the operations of the food bank. “When I did visit for the first time, I thought ‘Wow, the need in the community must be pretty great if you need an entire warehouse full of food.’”

Those few interactions with the food bank were all it took for Markatos to see the potential value in giving more of his time to the organization. “I could see that the work the food bank was doing was vital to the community and so when a board position opened up, I jumped at the chance,” he said. 

Markatos has been on the board of directors of the Regina Food Bank since 2010, having chaired the governance committee for the past three years. During his time on the board, he’s seen the organization grow and diversify in a number of ways but he said one of the highlights for him has been the growth of the Adult Centre for Employee Readiness and Training (ACERT). ACERT was set up by the food bank to provide community-based adult education in the areas of computers, financial management, career development and workplace literacy. Markatos said the idea is to provide ACERT participants with practical skills they need to find employment, potentially reducing their reliance on food-support programs offered by the food bank.

“Not all participants use the food bank, but some may and the idea is to move people past that. It’s been great to see many of the people in the program go on to find meaningful employment in the community.”

It’s obvious that Markatos takes pride in his involvement with the Regina Food Bank, but he’s also proud of MLT for organizing activities to support a number of other local charities. The firm holds monthly raffles that include prizes donated by the lawyers themselves as well as an annual charity poker night. In the past, the firm has also held concerts featuring their house band Sweet Justice, donating the proceeds to charity. Markatos is encouraged by his firm’s involvement, as well as the generosity shown by his colleagues. “I’m especially impressed with the next generation of lawyers and their level of involvement in various community initiatives.”

Markatos has a number of success stories to share, but his proudest moment came the first time he took his daughter to the food bank to volunteer. “She was four or five at the time, it was Saturday morning, it was cold and she was complaining because she didn’t understand that some people just don’t have enough money to buy basic necessities. However, once she got there her attitude switched and she really got into it, trying to see how many bags of rice she could fill in a certain amount of time,” he proudly recalled.

Moments like that have made it clear to Markatos that the effort he puts in is worth it. “Just knowing that the food bank is making a daily impact in people’s lives, especially kids, is very rewarding. I don’t overstate what the board does, but I like to think what we do through the board makes a small contribution to achieving positive end results for the food bank.”