Joanne and Emily-anne Griffiths are a mother-daughter powerhouse. Joanne Griffiths, the mom, is a committed philanthropist and a well-known name in Canada’s charitable sector. As a founding member of Canuck Place, Canuck Foundation and a volunteer in various children’s charities, she has been involved in promoting, participating and fundraising for worthwhile causes that have raised over $15 million to better the community.
Proof that the apple does not fall far from the tree, Emily-anne is following closely in the philanthropic footsteps of her mom. Growing up, Emily-anne participated in many volunteer activities, including a service project that took her to Thailand. After graduating from university, she moved back to Vancouver and began volunteering with her mother.
In 2012, the duo started a grassroots charity called Community First Foundation to help be part of the solution to child hunger in Vancouver. This led to the founding of their flagship program, Backpack Buddies, which provides healthy, nutritious meals to inner-city school children on the weekends. Now in its third year, the program supplies over 400 kids with enough food to last the weekend throughout the entire school year.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Joanne and Emily-anne about Backpack Buddies, and what it’s like to work with each other.
Can you tell us a little about Backpack Buddies and how it works?
EAG: The Backpack Buddies Program seeks to address the childhood hunger gap over the course of the weekend. Many programs exist in schools Monday through Friday to ensure children are receiving enough to eat. However, these same children who rely on school meal programs often go home to little or nothing to eat over the weekend. That’s where we come in.
Backpack Buddies is a unique program that addresses a very real need in the Vancouver community while providing a tangible opportunity for children to help other children.
The concept is simple. Children that are fortunate enough to be living and attending school without worrying about where their next meal is coming from are invited to join the program. They have fundraisers, hold food drives and pack backpacks full of enough food to feed children throughout the weekend. Next, our volunteers pick up the backpacks and deliver them to the schools that need them. It’s simple but requires a great deal of work.
What compelled you to start Backpack Buddies? Was there a particular “light bulb moment” that motivated you to take action?
JG: I was compelled to start Backpack Buddies after talking to an outreach worker at Grandview School. I had been trying to put in a community rooftop garden but ran into all sorts of problems with permitting and so forth. I got to know Aeryn Williams, the outreach worker, through the community garden process. When it became apparent that the garden was not going to be permitted, I asked her what was the greatest need of the children in the school. She immediately said weekend hunger, when school programs were not in operation. Hence Backpack Buddies was born.
EAG: Initially, the goal was to build gardens at various schools within the inner city. The harvest from the gardens would then go directly into the schools meal programs. However, due to a lot of bureaucracy, and several doors slammed in our faces, we realized that this was not going to happen.
Through the process of exploring this idea, the issue of childhood weekend hunger was brought to Joanne’s attention – mostly through conversations she had with teachers in the schools we initially approached about building gardens. She came to me with this information and we decided then and there that we were going to do something.
When we realized just how extensive childhood weekend hunger is in this city, we couldn’t just sit on this information. We knew it was up to us to do something.
One of the things I like about Backpack Buddies is how it involves children from more affluent neighbourhoods, and gives them an opportunity to practice giving from an early age. From your experience, what are the most important lessons that the kids from the donor schools learn through the program?
EAG: The Backpack Buddies Program offers students from varying backgrounds the opportunity to help their peers. This is very empowering for the students on the donor end. They know they are making a difference, right now.
What’s unique about our program is that it’s a real and tangible experience. Each week, students physically pack the backpacks we deliver. This causes them to think and reflect upon the work they are doing. It’s incredible to see how motivated the students are. There are so many fundraising initiatives that these students participate in – however, they typically raise money and then send the money somewhere else. They don’t have the opportunity to see what their efforts have achieved. That’s what is so special about our program. There is a real connection between the students.
Lastly, we open up a dialogue with the students. We have conversations with them about the children they are helping. To me, there is very little sense of community today. There is “us” and there is “them”. Through our program, we try to break this idea down. We have a simple conversation around the idea that we are all the same at the end of the day. Some people may have more than others, and if you are fortunate enough it is your duty to help others.
I believe the act is equally as important as the result.
And what about the kids in the recipient schools? Besides the much-needed food they receive, what do you think the program teaches them?
JG: I think it lets them know that there other kids in this world that actually care about what happens to them.
EAG: That someone cares. Some of the children in our program have very tough home lives, and our program lets them know that someone out there cares about them.
At Christmas time, students at one of the donor schools (through their own initiative) created 150 handmade Christmas cards. They added one to each of the backpacks for that week’s delivery. These small gestures go above and beyond and let the children know that we care about them.
The fact that you started and run the charity with your daughter/mom is pretty amazing. What’s it like to work so closely with her?
JG: To work with my daughter has been a gift. We work together as a team playing off of each others strengths. She keeps me organized and brings me back when my goals become too focused on the future rather than what we are working on in the present. We disagree on occasion but get over it quickly.
EAG: It is a blessing and a curse! We challenge each other constantly, but I think that’s part of what makes us work.
Unlike your common workplace, if we disagree on an idea we really voice our opinions. However, we are always able to take a step back and realize when the other is right. We always put our cause before our egos. That’s the most important thing.
We balance each other really well. If I am worried about something, she lifts me up and assures me we are on the right path. And vise versa.
It’s a very interesting dynamic, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you had to choose one thing, what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from your daughter/mom through your work with Backpack Buddies?
JG: The one thing I have learned is I have one heck of an amazing daughter who is dedicated to helping people in need.
EAG: Never, ever give up. My mom’s perseverance is second to none. Plain and simple.
Giving has a karmic boomerang effect: The more you give, the more that comes back to you. How has your charitable work impacted your own life?
JG: It’s not so much a karmic effect but more of a blessing to be in a position to be able to do what I do. To impact people’s lives in a positive way and knowing that you are making a difference is in and of itself a reward.
EAG: For me, things have really fallen into place in my life over the last year. I have pursued my dream of Community First Foundation and our Backpack Buddies Program with blind faith that I will succeed. And I have. Through this, things in my personal life have really flourished.
I wouldn’t necessarily attribute this to my work through the charity, but more so to faith that I am on the right path. Belief in yourself and your goals is incredibly powerful. Although, I suppose the karmic boomerang helps a little!
Finally, what advice do you have for someone who wants to get more involved with philanthropy or charitable work?
JG: Starting your own charity is hard work. There are a lot of charities out there already vying for an ever shrinking pool of money. If I were to say one thing, it would be follow your passion, whatever it may be. My passion is and has always been helping children. All of my successes have been centred around making the world an easier place for them, no matter what their burden.
EAG: For anyone that has a desire to get more involved in charitable work I simply say do it. But don’t do it for any other reason than you simply want to help. The most important thing is that you find a cause that you feel a connection with or that you are passionate about. Passion trumps all!
Visit the Community First Foundation website for more information about Backpack Buddies, or to help support the program.