He strikes an imposing figure, this man seated before me. He wears a curly beard with a bit of salt and pepper colouring, and today he is also wearing a “shiner” as he calls it. He explains that his black eye and other bruises are the result of a fall on the weekend on one of his frequent walks. “I'm getting better” he quickly assures me, adding that he was quite sore for a while.
Bill is a veteran of the Winnipeg Harvest “trenches”. He began volunteering here in 1998 and became the self-proclaimed “potatoe man”. He spent his days sorting through thousands of pounds of potatoes, boxing them for the people who came to stock up their pantries. He loved his work with vegetables, making sure that spoiled items were put aside for the compost heap so that recipients didn't have spoiled food to take home to their families. Bill insisted on quality work, because if the job is worth doing it's worth doing well.
Bill arrived in Winnipeg with no intention of staying. He was on his way east, perhaps Toronto, because it was a bigger city with more options for him. He took a room at the Occidental Hotel and began to make contacts around the city. One day, after hearing about Winnipeg Harvest, he decided he would check the place out. He walked in, met Lee Newton who was the volunteer coordinator at that time, and asked her if there was any work he might do. Lee was only too happy to show him around and arrange for him to begin his service at Winnipeg Harvest. As people soon found out, Bill is a friendly guy, but prefers working alone. He says, “You get more work done that way, without all the distractions that can happen at a busy place like this.” Bill and Lee became fast friends over the years, supporting each other in ways that only they could understand.
Bill was born in Vancouver. At the age of 15 he and his parents moved to Seattle, Washington. With a sparkle in his eye, Bill tells me that at age 16 and a half, he joined the U.S. Marines, telling them he was 17. He served for ten years, working as a Military Policeman. His service took him to places like Japan and the Philippines were he escorted prisoners back to the U.S. for trial. Life took Bill to many places all over North America before he arrived in Winnipeg. A lot of that time was spent living from hand to mouth on the streets of various large cities. He loves to hitch-hike, telling many interesting stories of rides he got, especially those in Mexico.
Gratefulness fills his voice as he shares about the many friends he has made here at Winnipeg Harvest. Harvest with its many wonderful people is the reason Bill stayed in Winnipeg. He says, “The people at Harvest went to bat for me”. When he turned 65 and became eligible for pension, Bob and George helped him to find a wonderful apartment and furniture and they even set him up with his own computer. All the while that he volunteered at Harvest, Bill was able to feed himself with hampers from Harvest. Now that he's got a steady income, he is proud to say that he shops for his own groceries, insisting that there are people out there who need the food from Harvest more than he does.
Bill comes to Harvest regularly, stopping in for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. “I love cherry and pumpkin pie and if I see one of them sitting on the counter, I put it in a bag and take it home to enjoy with a good cup of coffee and a movie.” Bill loves movies, especially the classics. He collects them, going to pawn shops and other places to pick up bargains. He is also hooked on some of the games that are on his computer.
Not long ago, Bill decided to visit friends down east. He stuck out his thumb and three months later he reported back to Winnipeg. He smiles as he talks about going to Toronto, Montreal, Florida, Mexico, California, up to Vancouver and then back to Winnipeg. When he got back, he found out that he had given his friends here quite a scare. Many people around the country had been looking for him. He realized then, how much people here at Harvest care about him. Bill enjoys life and is very grateful for the friends he has made at Winnipeg Harvest. He has a comfortable home and is welcome for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie anytime at Harvest. What could be better?
May 8, 2008 Robb Nickel