Surrey Food Bank executive director Marilyn Herrmann laughs as she recalls not being the board’s first choice to replace her then-boss Robin Campbell in 2006.
“I wasn’t interested in the job, quite frankly,” she said. “Somebody else got the job and I was fine.”
But that person ended up leaving, and she was offered the position.
“I remind the board chair of that to this day,” she chuckled. “You didn’t want me.”
But more than a decade later, Herrmann is retiring from her position as executive director after 14 years of service to the charity, 11 as its leader.
“It’s been about a year coming that I decided, you know what, I’m in my 65th year and maybe it’s time, maybe they need some new blood around here,” said Herrmann. “My husband is 80 so that had a huge impact, he wasn’t too well this year. We knew I’d retire but we thought maybe sooner was better than later.”
Herrmann sits on several boards, including Food Bank Canada and Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society.
“All of my terms come up in June. It was kind of like everything was lined up. And we had a new granddaughter born in Montreal.
“So I thought, alright, it’s time.”
Though, it’s bittersweet, she said.
“It’s mixed emotions. Absolutely.”
During her time at the helm, the Tiny Bundles program has been expanded, many programs have been set up including a Senior’s Depot, a Toddler Totes program and a hamper delivery service for people with mobility issues.
And she estimated they see double – if not triple – the clients they did when she first grabbed the reigns.
“It’s been a challenge to get creative in how we raise funds,” she said. “But it’s a team effort. And volunteers are a huge component.”
Herrmann paused before starting to talk about the highs and lows during her time at the charity.
“Early in my time here, we didn’t have a good supply of baby food. I had a mom come in and I didn’t have any left,” she said. “She cried. And I cried. I thought this cannot happen. There must be people in the community willing to support this program. We need to have that food every time.
“At the time I looked at the dollar tag to achieve that, and I said I don’t think we can do it. My team has done it. We always have a supply so no one has turned away, so that’s been huge.”
Herrmann said she wished the food bank had found a new, larger home during her time. It’s been a crutch.
“I said I would not retire until we found a new building. That has been one obstacle after another and it’s been five-and-a-half years since we started to look seriously. I thought, maybe that’ll be someone else’s problem now because I’ll be too old if I wait until we get a new building…
“It’s not through lack of effort, we’re in one of the most expensive cities and we’re still the fastest growing city and with that comes high land values and competition. We just are trying to do something at a time that’s almost out of our possibility.”
Herrmann said the physical building kept the group from doing a lot of things they wanted to do.
“I think this food bank will blossom once we find a different building.”
But in the meantime, like many other food banks across the country, the Surrey Food Bank is “reinventing itself.” In fact, a vertical farm has been installed inside a Cloverdale church that is growing food for the bank. The first harvest is set for later this month.
As she prepares to depart, Herrmann reflected on the food bank’s clientele, and how they’ve changed.
“More middle-class people are finding it tougher to make ends meet where before you wouldn’t hear that,” she said.
“Now the economy is forcing people to move out of the middle class and they’re ending up in lower-class status. That’s alarming to me. That’s who we’re seeing more and more of, and I don’t see that changing.
“The Syrian refugees were a huge influx of new people, and we met the need,” she said.
The food bank’s surrounding neighbourhood has also changed dramatically during her time as executive director.
“The physical changes are absolutely astounding,” she said. “There were little stores where city hall was, none of the apartment towers, it was totally different.”
She expects it’ll be tough to find a new home in the area.
“I was talking to one of my colleagues and he said the availability rate and he said the (commercial) availability rate in Surrey is less than one per cent, whether to buy or to lease. This is our biggest issue as an organization.”
Herrmann, a Surrey resident since 1986, has had a diverse career.
She was a teacher for a time, then landed a customer service job in warehousing and transportation, which directly translated to the food bank operations.
“Then I ended up seeing a little ad in the paper for a logistics manager for a food bank. I thought, ‘Hey that’s right up my alley.’ Food acquisition and logistics. That was the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. I went there in 2000 and left in 2003. I actually got fired,” she said with a smirk. “I’m not the least bit embarrassed to tell. My job ended because I got fired. It was just a personality clash with the leader at the time.”
She then studied floral design at Kwantlen Polytechnic University but she got a call from the former executive director of SFB, who offered her a job.
“Did I plan to get into not for profit? No. But I look back on everything I did in my life and it prepared me for everything I do today. To come in with a background in transporation, warehousing, customer service, community engagement, everything kind of fit into place. This has been the best part of my career.”
Herrmann said while the community appreciates the food bank’s work, she’s not sure if people realize “what we do and to the magnitude that we do it.”
“If we shut our doors I can’t even imagine what people would do. I think we’re that much of an essential service in the community. People need us. And we need to be there. Human compassion, that’s really what we’re giving here,” she added. “It’s kindness, human kindness, one to another.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really met anyone one who wants to come here,” she continued. “And I’m happy to say we’re starting to see numbers drop, for the first time. That, to me, is the best way to leave this organization. The fact that we’re helping people to become less dependent, to me, that’s success.”
Herrmann will retire at the end of June. A replacement yet to be announced.