Grad spends retirement years caring for her community

Photo by Dan Toulgoet

How much good can one person do in the world? If that person is Vancouver’s Rita Lee, then the answer is plenty. The recent graduate from the Community Capacity Building Certificate (CCB) program has become a whirlwind force in the community since retiring from her banking career eight years ago.

Rita’s lengthy volunteering record includes helping adults with disabilities through Kudoz (now Curiko) and promoting the social wellbeing of children as an instructor in the Roots of Empathy program. She now teaches a number of free community workshops and volunteers with Copley Community Orchard in East Vancouver. For the last two and a half years, she’s also led an ambitious food rescue operation in partnership with CityReach Care Society.

“It’s like I have my own food bank,” she laughs. “Sometimes I receive 1,000 pounds of food a week. My job is to find homes for all of it.”

With the help of her trusted volunteers, Rita distributes groceries to residents in supportive housing and seniors’ housing, as well as to individual families, shelters, churches and community pantries. Once a week, a neighbour’s backyard serves as a pick-up spot/mini food bank.

While rescued food may not be perfect, it’s perfectly good, explains Rita. Considered unsaleable by local supermarkets, the food may include bruised produce or items approaching their expiry date, but all of it still nourishing.

After all, Rita doesn’t believe in waste. “I have good parents,” she says. “They taught me good values, such as never to waste anything.”

One of six children, she grew up in Hong Kong in a home without electricity, and she remembers burning newspapers and pinecones in their homemade stove so they could boil water. Rita’s playground was the orchard surrounding their home, where she learned to climb trees, chase butterflies—and appreciate what the land provides.

In school, Rita was taught the English language as well as the Chinese belief in the interconnectedness of self, family, community, society and country. “It’s a domino effect,” she explains. “If every area is healthy, then this country is a beautiful country. That’s why self-care is so important. I have to take care of my health, so I can do more for other people.”

Keen to continue developing her community leadership skills, Rita joined the CCB program on the recommendation of a friend. “It’s beyond words how much benefit I got from this program,” she says. “It boosted my self-confidence. It gave me courage and support, and it made me bolder and bolder.”

Before taking the CCB program, Rita says she found running her food operation exhausting because she was taking on all the work herself. Through the program, she finally learned how to ask for help and lighten her burden. Taking classes alongside peers also allowed her to make important new connections, and generate even more ideas for ways to work together and help others. On her to-do list: a community kitchen that will make use of her rescued food.

“I’m expanding what I can do,” she says. “I know I will have fun in the coming years because of the connections I have now.”

Rita was recently named a winner in the SFU Student-Community Engagement Competition for her “Happy, Connected, Resilient Neighbours” proposal. She’s now carrying out the project by delivering free workshops at South Vancouver Neighbourhood House and Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, all aimed at fostering connection and preventing social isolation, particularly amongst older adults.

In her workshops, Rita teaches everything from financial literacy to health, but her overarching lesson remains one of gratitude: learning to be thankful for what we have.

“I’m so, so lucky,” she smiles. “I have everything on earth I need. And I have extra every day to share with my community. This kind of activity I’m doing takes some of my energy, of course. But it brings a lot of joy to me. It’s a win-win situation.”

By Kim Mah