Barb's Story: I Don’t Want Your Coin, I Want Change

Barb at the Harvest Market“For years, I was always very secret about it. I never wanted anyone to know that I was poor,” explains Barb about the feeling that has plagued her for years. That same feeling has inspired her to make a difference for people living in poverty in our community.

Growing up, Barb and her five brothers and sisters lived with their parents in her grandmother’s basement.  “My mother didn’t work and so that’s where we lived. There wasn’t a lot of privacy, I remember sitting in the bathtub to do my homework!  But it was a different time back then; neighbours didn’t always try to outdo each other.”

It wasn’t until she went to school that she began to understand that she and her family was poor. 

“I would make excuses not to go to the movies with my friends rather than admit that I didn’t have the money. Or I would convince them it would be fun to spend the day collecting bottles that we could exchange so I had money to go to the movies. I was very creative.”

She learned early that if she wanted something, she would have to earn her own money. So at age 13 she was babysitting and working at the snack bar at the local bowling alley. 

“I really, really wanted to have a bed that had drawers underneath. So I saved my money and when I was 14, I bought my own bed,” says Barb. “I was so proud. I felt a little bad at first for my brothers and sisters who didn’t have a new bed but that didn’t last long!”

Years later, Barb’s life changed suddenly through a simple invitation. Divorced, recovering from a hip replacement and living in a housing complex with her two children, she got a phone call from a community development worker. 

“She asked me to come to the office to help answer the phones,” says Barb. “Well that was it. I had got to the point that I realized that there’s probably something I can do. From there, my role just expanded.”

Since then Barb has worked and volunteered with many local organizations that provide support and opportunities for people in need. Some of those include the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition, Poverty Elimination Task Force for Guelph and Wellington, the North Riverside and Onward Willow Neighbourhood Groups, Women’s Economic Empowerment Project, Community Voices, Advance Your Voice Speakers Bureau, Welcoming Project of CCISC/CSQAD, Fundraising and Programming Committee for Guelph Youth Darts, the Royal City Dart League, North End Harvest Market and the Rogue Neighbours Group.

Today Barb volunteers at the North End Harvest Market in Guelph at a stall that provides free fresh fruit and vegetables to low income families.

“We changed the atmosphere at the market because we wanted people to feel comfortable and welcome and not ashamed,” explains Barb. “We have a large teddy bear, Harvey, who is dressed for all different occasions to welcome people in. The first thing they do when they see Harvey all dressed up is smile. We don’t use a computer because we didn’t want people to have to walk up to someone with a big screen in front of them, so we just have a binder to track information. But now, people come in to just chat and visit, not always for the food. You have to find a way to be compassionate and really see the person and hear their story.”

Life continues to be a struggle for Barb, even with meaningful work to keep her busy. After the death of her second husband, she was homeless for three years but credits the connections she has made through her work with getting her back on her feet. She has learned that people want to be heard, be part of a community. They want to be seen as people and they want to be part of the solution.

“I’m happy to tell my story now. I hope it helps other people to tell their story, even if they can get comfortable enough to just get out that one piece of their story that’s holding them back. Everyone has a story. I don’t need to know everything, just that you need help.”

Barb McPhee was one of several participants that shared their powerful stories with health service providers and others at the Waterloo Wellington LHIN and The Change Foundation Patient and Family Engagement event in May. The Waterloo Wellington LHIN is working with health service providers, community leaders and community partners to build a health system that acknowledges the challenges that social determinants of health, like access to housing and food, have on the residents in our communities. To read more about the work that’s being done or how you can help please click here.