Christine Simmons is no stranger to the hardships of life.
Early in her life as a young mother in a single-income family, trying to raise two small children, she gained an understanding of the difficulty of putting food on the table while living paycheque to paycheque.
So when she started working for the Salvation Army nearly 20 years ago, Simmons applied that same dedication, along with the compassion of her faith, to helping others in their time of need.
One of her biggest goals at the time — which remains her passion even now — is to fill the shelves of the food bank so the needy in the community will always have somewhere to go to find food to put on their own tables.
It is for that success and her tireless dedication to doing the work she has done and continues to do, the community ministries director was recently named one of 33 recipients in Canada of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal as determined by Food Banks Canada.
“It used to be that a treat for us was to be able to have hot dogs, that was a big meal because we lived on oatmeal and Kraft Dinner until the next pay came in,” recalled Simmons. “I tell people I can sympathize with the way you feel because I’ve been in your shoes. We’re all just living and but for the grace of God I might be there tomorrow.”
The reminders of the tough times occur almost daily for Simmons, but there was one particular incident that stands out in her memory involving a single father who arrived at the Salvation Army headquarters about this time of year.
“He was working but not making enough money and needing help was new to him and he felt really embarrassed, but he just wanted to provide a good Christmas for his kids,” said Simmons. “He just looked so defeated and he started to cry in my office and that was very emotional for me, but as we talked I hope that I encouraged him that he was doing the right thing for his children and when he left, I think — I hoped — he was feeling better.”
Not surprisingly, it is that aspect the director most loves about her job, not the physical rewards.
However, Salvation Army employees Barb Stewart and Dorian Poloway — who Simmons labeled, “the co-conspirators” — who penned the nomination letter to Food Bank Canada definitely felt some tangible recognition for their boss was warranted.
“It is just something for people like her who feel that no praise is ever necessary, is never welcome and who never want it,” said Stewart. “So we thought it would be a good thing to do, to take some time which we rarely do around here to reflect on what keeps it going, even if it’s for just that little moment in time for us to reflect on what she offers to this organization and how much we appreciate her.”
Her partner in crime agreed.
“That’s exactly what it is, Christine doesn’t do it for herself but for all of those people who need help out in the community,” said Poloway. “She has such a big heart and so much compassion. Her strength, the morals, the values, the integrity, she’s got all that.”
Both women agree one of Simmons’ most important characteristics is her sense of humour.
“That really is what keeps everyone going, especially when times are the toughest,” said Poloway. “I can’t think of one quality that keeps you going like a good sense of humour and she definitely has that.”
Respecting people, no matter what their status in life, is another attribute which strikes a positive chord with clients and something the ministries director always tries to do.
“I just think it must get so discouraging for people when they have to come to the Salvation Army, which is why we have to be very respectful because we might be the only friendly face they see and that really means a lot,” said Simmons. “Many of the volunteers have been helped through the Salvation Army and that is why they come back to help out, because sometimes that’s all these people have to give back and that they do gladly, which has a lot to do with how they were treated. The respect, the fact that they were respected.”
She summed up her work and the real reward this way: “The giving to me is when we see in the faces of those who come to us, a look of thanks when they receive. It’s a bag of food, it’s not a lot — but it is a lot to the people who receive.
“It means they are able to feed their children today.”
And that is a feeling she knows all too well.