Three women responsible for improving food security at the local level are the Helping Hands Society of Cochrane’s executive director Lauren McDonald, volunteer programs manager Melia Hayes, and food programs manager April Baird.
Whether it’s operating their three free food sheds or hosting fundraising events around town, the trio of local leaders always have their hands full.
“My favourite thing about my role is connecting with both the volunteers and clients,” Hayes said. “I really feel like developing relationships and advocating for everyone is a really important piece of my job”
The trio all agree that in terms of their own inspiration, they find role models locally through other women who aim to make Cochrane a better place.
“Wanda [McGinnis] is the executive director of Big Hill Haven, and I’ve taken her on as my mentor,” McDonald said. “I look to other females in particular, like Monique [Fiedler-Sills] at the library, she’s doing such a phenomenal job.”
Baird said she looks up to McDonald for both inspiration and support, but also Valerie McKracken from the Cochrane Farmer’s Market.
“She’s a super innovative thinker,” Baird said. “Any time that lady has something to say, I’m listening because she’s brought a lot of programs and interesting ideas and concepts to Cochrane.”
A universal source of inspiration for the Helping Hands team are the women’s mothers, who they all firmly believe played a major role in getting them to where they are today.
“What’s a bigger inspiration than someone’s mom?” McDonald asked. “She’s my guiding light and always fighting for the underdog, and I feel like that’s one of my core values.”
As mothers raising daughters at home, they believe that celebrating International Women’s Day – recognized on March 8 – is important to promote women in leadership roles.
“I cannot state enough how important it is [to have] women in leadership roles because we bring a different lens into different sectors, and I’d love to see the numbers increase,” McDonald said. “I love I can name the women around town who are change-makers, [who are] breaking patterns.”
Hayes added that some women bring strong, empathetic voices that connect people together alongside strong leadership skills.
“I try to see the world as I want my girls to grow up into it, to be a part of, and to make a difference in it,” Hayes said.
Baird agrees with her colleagues, but added it is important for matriarchal leadership to play down the ego of male leaders.
“We have been colonized by men of ego and if we are going to survive farther…we are going to need compassion and empathy in leadership roles to balance that out,” she said.
“Being a good leader means you get up and do it the next day anyways. You do the next food drive or fundraising event, despite any backlash because you know it’s right or it has to get done.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Helping Hands managed to keep operating despite their offices being closed. With a little adjustment, they were able to still help raise awareness and offer solutions for food insecurity in Cochrane.
“The pandemic really brought a lot more awareness to that with the grocery stores unable to keep stock of anything international,” Baird said. “It highlighted the need for food security in Cochrane and we were able to adapt to that.”
After identifying these issues in recent years, they said Helping Hands is dedicated to continuing to address food insecurity post-pandemic, while promising inclusion and accessibility for all.
For any girls and young women, the trio have a plethora of advice, but they believe being part of something that is significant to yourself personally is very important.
“Don’t join the workforce to get a paycheque. If you can do something that is fulfilling, be a part of that,” Baird said.
In the future, the Helping Hands Society plans to create a form of non-profit hub that offers a variety of services in downtown Cochrane alongside other non-profit groups that share the same vision.
“We want it to be somewhere central, inclusive, and accessible,” McDonald said. “It’s the non-profit hub. That’s what Helping Hands dreams about.”