Working with the poor has been a rewarding and educating experience for poverty activist Barb McPhee.
“I always say poverty has been my life, my teacher, my mentor,” said McPhee. “I don’t wish a life of poverty on anyone, but I have been able to live and I have been able to pass that down to my kids and my grandkids.”
McPhee has worked and volunteered with neighbourhood groups for more than 25 years and for the past four years has been managing the North End Harvest Market in Portable 6 at Waverly Drive School.
“This market opened in 2014 but they had a market coordinator in the beginning and I volunteered for a year,” said McPhee. “When she got a job in Toronto I kind of just fell in.”
They held a party last week to celebrate the market’s fifth anniversary.
“The Ward 2 councillors wanted to have a picnic for Ward 2 so they asked if they could do it here and it just happened to be our anniversary so we melded it all together,” said McPhee.
“James Gordon brought a bunch of performers in. Rodrigo was doing hotdogs. C-Joy was here. We brought in the Seed Market from downtown.”
The North End Harvest Market is a program of the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition. It is open every Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 7:30pm. They rely entirely on grants, donations and fundraising campaigns to provide healthy food to those in need.
“We see, I’d say 50 or 60 people every Wednesday night,” said McPhee.” It’s all free. All they have to do is give us their name, address and phone number. I was part of the initial starting of the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition and that opened a lot of doors for me.”
McPhee was born in 1953 the second child of Don and Hilda Dunseith.
“I was born right here in Guelph on the banks of the Speed River,” said McPhee. “My dad was the only one that worked. My mom was a stay at home mom. There were six kids and we lived in my grandmother’s basement.”
They were poor but happy.
“I never actually knew we were poor until I got to high school and I couldn’t afford go on any of the school trips,” said McPhee. “We learned to live with what we had and we learned to share.”
She started working when she was in high school.
“I was working at the Wyndham Bowling Lanes when I was 14 just so I could have some money and then kind of drifted through school,” she said. “When I was 21, I got married. Unfortunately, I married an alcoholic. So, again, I never got out of that poverty bracket.”
The marriage lasted 11 years.
“When we got divorced, I thought okay here is my opportunity to start over again, but it got really tough,” she said. “I had no money saved up. So, here again I’m in housing and at one point I was working three jobs.”
In 1989 she began a common law marriage with Barry “Bear” Heiman and the two joined forces to care for their five children.
In 1994 McPhee was hospitalized and had hip replacement surgery.
“When I came back out I was just kind of hanging around,” said McPhee. “Our house was right across from Onward Willow. They saw me sitting there and asked me if I would come and answer their phones. I ended up getting a job there for three years. Then I was president of the Better Beginnings Provincial Network. There were 11 different neighbourhoods over the province.”
When Heiman died in the summer of 2006, McPhee, who had dedicated her life to helping other people find housing, was without a home.
“When Bear passed away I had to move because I was in housing and I was over-housed,” she said. “There I was with no place to live so, from the age of 58 until 61 I was homeless.”
She stayed with her father for a short while until he died and was able to live in a trailer in West Montrose during the summer months.
“You are only allowed in the shelter for 29 days,” she said. “I stayed with my daughter for a little bit and with friends for a little bit. I had the experience of sleeping in my car and sleeping on couches.”
The experience strengthened her resolve to help others through a number of groups and campaigns including the Bicycle Recycling Centre, The Poverty Elimination Task Force and Peas in the Pod.
Volunteering has become a family tradition she has passed on to her children and grandchildren
“My granddaughter Madison started volunteering here at the market when she was six,” said McPhee. “My daughter Kelly and the two kids came to the celebration last week. I told them to come and enjoy the party but they ended up volunteering. So, the same thing is now instilled in them. You need to help those who need help.
McPhee hopes her work will inspire others to volunteer and eventually erase the stigma of being poor.
“I still live in poverty,” she said. “I was kind of glad I was raised in poverty because it was one of the biggest life lessons anyone could ever learn. I would love to work myself out of a job. I really would but I don’t see that happening. So, for anybody who has to live this kind of life there is no shame in it. It has been a struggling lifestyle but I’ve survived.”