A meditation on community connection: Long-time food bank volunteer moves on

After 14 years as the face of the Jasper Food Bank, Patrick Mooney has packed his final hamper.

And like the true observing Buddhist he is, rather than be troubled with, nostalgic for, or relieved by the fact that his weekly Dana (the Buddhist practice of giving) will be no longer, Mooney is simply accepting.

“Everything rises and passes away,” he said. “We should not be attached to anything.”

For the clients and fellow volunteers who will surely miss him, that notion might be harder to process. However, most of them know Mooney well enough to understand his philosophies on such matters. For more than 700 weeks since 2002, Mooney brought compassion and kinship to community members who—like him, during different periods of his life—needed a bit of help to get a leg-up.

From Mooney’s perspective, however, it was those folks who helped him.

“When I give out a bag of food to somebody I’m doing myself a favour too,” he said. “I couldn’t be a better person if I didn’t have that other person who needs me.”

Mooney’s Jasper story started fairly ordinarily: in 2001 he arrived in town on relatively hard times, got an entry-level job washing dishes and eventually connected with Community Outreach Services. But instead of simply helping him get back on his feet, Mooney’s contact with COS changed his course entirely. He started volunteering with the organization and eventually landed a job as an Outreach Worker. Director of Community and Family Services, Kathleen Waxer, saw in the then-49-year-old an uncanny ability to empathize with others. Soon, with Waxer’s support, Mooney was spearheading one of Jasper’s most well-regarded programs: Sunday Community Dinners in the Activity Centre.

As with COS, when Mooney started with the Jasper Food Bank, he was happy to pour his energy into a enterprise that gave back to the residents. He had a history of drug and alcohol addiction which dated back to his teens, but he also had a way of battling his demons: meditation. He eventually became interested in Theravada Buddhism and with further study, the values instilled in those traditions influenced his volunteerism and his work life. He promoted self-reflection. He facilitated weekly mindfulness sessions. And he encouraged his clients to ask for help, rather than be embarrassed by it.

“Learning to ask for help is a deep and profound teaching,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to do for some people.”

Certainly at the food bank it was made easier because of Mooney’s deft touch. He took pleasure in meeting specific needs for clients, such as packing rice rather than potatoes for a family that he knew would prefer the former. He was also proud to affix the Jasper Food Bank’s name to the annual Christmas Dinner at the Legion. The dinner was for Jasperites who were, like Mooney, far away from home or without family.

“It was the most important night of the year for the food bank,” he said.

Mooney also was instrumental in the yearly food drive. For four Saturdays in July he and a small team of volunteers would go door-to-door collecting donations that would help keep Jasper fed throughout the year. Now the drive is a Halloween tradition—an evolution that Mooney is pleased with, since it receives a helping hand from a large group of young community helpers, themselves connected to COS through his former colleagues.

Far from just helping introduce young Jasperites to volunteering, however, Mooney’s 14 years at the food bank helped empower a wide range of people. That included folks who were down and out, some who were addicted to substances, and some who were, at times, completely despondent. Giving these folks a purpose—even if it was simply a shift sorting donations—was often just the thing to help them through a dark day.

“A large part of recovery is to reconnect,” he said. “And one of the best ways to reconnect with yourself and community is to start volunteering. It’s magic. It’s like medicine.”

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