Most people in Bradford West Gwillimbury know Ruth Brooks as a volunteer with the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 521.
She became a member in 2002, because of her dad – World War II veteran, and member of the Queen’s Own Rifles Lt.-Col. Murdoch McIver.
He had been invited to the 2003 opening of the Juno Centre in Normandy, but didn’t feel up to the trip. When Brooks offered to take his place, he told her, “I think you should join the Legion.”
Since 2005, she has filled almost every role on the executive, serving as treasurer, secretary, bursary chair, public relations, youth & education, poppy chair, first vice president, and president – but her favourite has always been the youth & education chair, which organizes the annual remembrance poster and poetry competitions in the schools.
“Youth & education is amazing,” Brooks said. “What the children produce is astounding.”
Currently, she is “past past president” and ladies’ auxiliary liaison, and undertakes speaking engagements in front of various groups.
Although she is cutting back somewhat on her role with the Legion, it doesn’t mean that she’s taking a break from volunteering. Not only does Brooks still attend Legion events, the Legion is not the only organization for which she volunteers.
Brooks was with Habitat for Humanity Huronia in Barrie, for 12 years, serving on the Family Selection Committee that helped to decide which applicants would be chosen for the “hand up, not a hand-out” that Habitat for Humanity provides.
Involved in six or seven ‘builds,’ Brooks was impressed by the families who were selected. Although all had to be careful with their budgets, “We came across families that tithe” – setting aside a tenth of their income for their church.
And while Habitat for Humanity requires each family to put in about 500 hours of “sweat equity,” either swinging a hammer on a build or serving as a volunteer, “some were already into volunteering.”
Brooks switched to the York Region branch of Habitat for Humanity, until that group amalgamated with Toronto and Brampton to create Habitat for Humanity GTA, and excluded Bradford. Now, she’s just waiting for a new ‘sub-affiliate’ of HH Huronia to open in Bradford West Gwillimbury, to get involved again.
She’s even more passionate about another cause.
Fifteen years ago, Brooks was invited to get involved in a new initiative in Newmarket, the Inn From the Cold winter shelter program, for homeless men and women.
The original Inn From the Cold program operated out of a church on Pony Drive, a church that had at one time been a strip club. Although the location was eventually moved, Brooks has memories of coping with the unusual layout, which included a one-time bar.
“I worked the very first night shift ever on New Year’s Eve,” she said. Now, staff handle evening shifts while volunteers fill in during the day, and the program has gone from three to seven days a week, also operating a cooling centre during the summer months.
Brooks heads out every Friday morning at 4:30 a.m., to arrive in time to cook breakfast for the clients of Inn from the Cold: “Bacon and pancakes!”
Last Friday, there were 27 people staying at the shelter. Besides a warm bed, a hot breakfast and a wrapped lunch, the program also offers employment programs, teaching basic skills.
“Some of these young people don’t have the skills to get a job,” Brooks said. “They lost parental guidance at an early age.” They may have no idea of the importance of being on time for work, paying the rent, or dressing appropriately.
As the weather gets colder, the number of people looking for assistance grows, but space is limited. “Our capacity is 36; last year, we turned away 176 people,” she said – but only after making sure they had what they needed to keep warm, from sleeping bags to mitts, or a referral to another agency.
It would be hard to keep the doors open if not for the support received from the community. Cobb’s Bread donates bread; Cintas donates blankets and cleaning, and a number of individuals and organizations provide donations of everything from socks, hats and gloves to flannel pajamas, new underwear and toiletries.
But there is always a need for donations in good condition, and for volunteers, Brooks said.
“They don’t have to do what I do,” which is come out at a fixed time every week, she said. “They can just fill in when needed. They need both kinds of people.” Just email [email protected] for details.
As for herself, “I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can,” she said. In March, Brooks had to give up night driving, due to cataracts – but now she’s had surgery on her eyes and “they’re perfect!”
Regarding the Legion, Brooks said, “You can call me ‘past past president’ – as long as you don’t say I’m past it!”