Loretta Wilson and Nilak Tommy load up their car with fresh produce to community members isolating due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Submitted)

Loretta Wilson and Nilak Tommy load up their car with fresh produce to community members isolating due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Submitted)

Pandemic, racism inspires food drive that is warming hearts and filling bellies

Cowichan woman’s food drive helps feed members in isolation and missing traditional gatherings

Missing traditional ceremonies that would usually bring her community together, and looking for a way to heal the community after an outbreak of COVID-19 and a corresponding outburst of flagrant racism, Darla Smith made it her mission to provide support in a variety of forms to people who are struggling.

“I was tired of all the negativity,” Smith explained, responding to the racist comments and actions that arose after a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases among Cowichan Tribes members and were widely condemned by leaders in the First Nations and wider communities. “I was really quite sad. I was really hurt. I wanted to shift my mind from the hurt and focus on the good.”

RELATED: Cowichan Tribes ordered to shelter in place due to COVID-19 outbreak

RELATED: Racism towards Cowichan Tribes in COVID-19 fight denounced by federal minister

At the same time, Smith and many others in the First Nations community have been missing traditional ceremonies that, in non-pandemic times, would bring them together.

Smith admitted she felt alone and was worried about how others were doing.

“I just want to know if people are OK,” she said. “I don’t need to know if they’re positive or negative [for COVID].”

As part of those missing ceremonies, families would typically gather together and share food. That inspired Smith to see if she could collect funds to buy fresh produce for community members who are isolating and might not have access to all the food they need. She posted to Facebook saying she would put up $100 and asking her friends to do the same, hoping to raise $1,000.

“It was a general request to anybody on Facebook,” she explained. “‘Do I have nine other friends who would be willing to do it.’”

She was able to meet that goal and more. As of Tuesday, Jan. 19, Smith had raised around $4,000, with more coming in.

“The response was remarkable from my friends,” she said. “The request definitely worked.”

In the meantime, she looked at her own cupboards and noticed how much she had that she wouldn’t be able to use before it expired, and decided to collect non-perishable items as well.

Adhering to strict COVID-19 protocols, Smith, her sister Loretta Wilson, and their kids sorted the food, then Wilson, who is a nurse at Cowichan Tribes’ Ts’ewulhtun Health Centre and works with the pandemic response team, delivered it along with friend Nilak Tommy, because they had information about who was isolating and needed supplies. They were able to provide food to about 50 homes.

“It’s my way of getting back to our teachings,” Smith explained. “Let’s share a meal even if I can’t sit with you.”

A teacher at Quw’utsun Smuneem Elementary School, Smith said she received a lot of donations from fellow educators. A bottle drive at Mill Bay Nature School raised $1,000 for her cause, and the Rotary Club has looked into helping out as well. Other people are offering to make homemade soups she can include in her deliveries.

“The heart of Cowichan is really warming up,” Smith said.

The remaining items were moved into a storage room at Wilson’s house, and they will probably do another run of deliveries in a couple of weeks. But that shouldn’t stop people from reaching out if they need support.

“If there is anyone who absolutely, positively needs help, we will do our best to help them,” Smith said. “I have the food, I have the ability to help, just message me.”

For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

To reach Smith, email darla.smith@alumni.ubc.ca or call or text 250-709-8994.

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