Niagara Falls students gain valuable skills, life lessons volunteering at food literacy centre
By Paul Forsyth Niagara This Week - Niagara Falls - July 15, 2021
It was Peter Valla’s aunt who introduced the Grade 12 student to the GROW Community Food Literacy Centre in downtown Niagara Falls and convinced him to start volunteering there at the centre’s Saturday morning markets.
Valla said it’s an experience that has cemented the student athlete’s career aspirations of becoming a firefighter, a breed of men and women willing to put their lives on the line to help others if necessary.
“GROW has shown me how great it is to help people, so why not make it a career?” he said.
He said the low-cost market that allows people living downtown to access fresh, healthy food at a fraction of the price of a traditional supermarket is making a big difference in an area of the city where fresh food was scarce.
“It showed me how everyone struggles sometimes and little gestures such as making food accessible to (everyone) is just awesome,” he said.
Valla is one of four Grade 12 student volunteers at the Saturday markets who were honoured by GROW for their service recently. Most will soon move on to post-secondary education.
Win Laar, a woman who has volunteered at the market since its launch last summer, said until GROW opened, many people in the downtown got much of their food from dollar stores and coffee shops because of the lack of supermarkets in the direct area. She recalled how on opening day it was so rewarding to see folks lining up to fill baskets and bags with healthy, fresh produce that they could actually afford.
“From there grew the hope that people have,” she said. “People have said that every Saturday is like Christmas when they come to GROW. Partly that’s because of the fresh food, and partly it’s because they’re going to be part of a family when they come here.
“They’re greeted by people who make them feel welcome,” said Laar. “As much as the food, it’s the welcome and the friendliness that is important to people that come.”
Student volunteer Maye Lopez, who would like to eventually open her own business, said volunteering at GROW “has given me the chance to grow as a person, to help others, to mean something.”
She also noted volunteering adds depth to a young person’s resumé. “This place has allowed me to make connections, to know more about myself, my capabilities and skills,” she said. “Volunteering at GROW has assisted me in my planning and organization skills, how to interact more naturally with people (and) leadership skills.”
Fayth Swain, an Indigenous student, said her volunteerism is helping her on her path toward a post-secondary education in social work and eventually a degree in psychology.
“I have built teamwork skills within GROW that will help me in the future (in) the field of work I hope to go into,” she said. “It means so very much to me to be able to help others and create a community place that helps everyone.”
Leon Tanevski said he quickly realized when he started heading to the market on Saturday mornings to volunteer that he was part of something special.
“I understand the value of affordable food for all, teaching younger people the importance of cooking good food properly, and spreading the sense of community,” he said.
GROW executive director Pam Farrell said the students played a big part in ensuring vulnerable people in the community had access to healthy food during the pandemic.
“Their dedication and service above self is commendable,” she said.
Farrell hopes their example leads other young people to consider community service.