After five years as executive director, Pamela McLean has departed from the Okotoks Food Bank.

Over those five years, McLean led the organization through tremendous growth, a pandemic, and countless fundraisers and events.

McLean joined the food bank in November of 2018, fully taking over as executive director in 2019.

Before that, she’d been working in downtown Calgary in the oil and gas sector.

“When you reach a certain period in your life, usually it happens when you turn 50, you start to take stock and restock of what you’re doing in your life. I just felt I needed a change. Working in the oil patch had been a wild ride, a great ride, but my husband and I talked about it, and it just seemed at that stage in my life, I was ready to give back,” she says.

The food bank looked very different when she took the role.

“[It was] a big leap of faith on my part and the part of the board. Truly, I didn’t have any food bank experience. I didn’t even volunteer here. I volunteered at many organizations in Okotoks but not at the food bank. So, lots of unknowns, and it looked so different five years ago.”

At the time McLean took leadership at the food bank, it was in a different location, tucked away in the industrial part of town, half the size of the current location, and split between two buildings.

She recalls frustrations from multiple warehouse coordinators at having to drag palettes of food back and forth outdoors from one building to the other.

The move to the food bank’s current location in Camshay Plaza on Stockton Ave. was on McLean and the food bank’s agenda from day one, and when it did finally happen, the world was hit with a pandemic.

With an official move-in date of March 31, 2020, the organization was faced with having to move everything to its new location without help from professional movers.

“It was done with the help of our volunteers; it was quite an operation. It took, I would say, about three weekends, and that was rallying volunteers with trucks and trailers,” says McLean. “You’re trying to be careful, you don’t want to have too many people together, hence spreading it out over the three weeks and trying to do what you could with eight dedicated volunteers each weekend. That was such a labour of love.”

From there, they had to figure out how to distribute food to clients while accounting for a virus that everyone was still learning about.

“Initially, we were pre-packing bags of food and just handing those out. Then we figured out how to resume the hamper program. The Calgary Food Bank were great leaders at that time, they were the first to do the drive-thru hamper system. As soon as we saw that and that it worked, we immediately copycatted that. To this day, that’s how we distribute hampers. So, some positives came out of the pandemic. It was such an efficient process to call the client in advance and go through their grocery requests over the phone. We still had that human interaction, but we were able to process more hampers by doing it that way.”

Just as the food bank learned to innovate, so too did Okotokians wishing to support them.

Virtual events, drive-thru food drives, and Hub Town Brewing’s Isolation Mug Club were just a few of them. 

“You didn’t expect that to happen in a pandemic, and yet our community and local businesses found ways to help even in those difficult times,” says McLean.

The Okotoks Food Bank expanded in more ways than one.

Part of McLean’s strategic plan was for the food bank to become a hub to distribute food more effectively within the county.

“Very shortly after we moved in here, Food Banks Alberta reached out to us and asked if we could become a hub on behalf of Food Banks Alberta immediately. They too had no idea what the pandemic meant, what it was going to involve, how desperate the food situation might become.”

The Okotoks Food Bank was a hub by the time they’d fully settled into the new building in June of 2020, and they started receiving food from the Food Banks Alberta warehouse for distribution to nearby food banks.
At first, that list included Claresholm, Diamond Valley (Turner Valley at the time), Nanton, and Vulcan, and has grown to include food banks in Tsuut'ina and Eden Valley.

As the food bank took on more and more donations to distribute, that job was made easier with the addition of a new box truck in 2021.

McLean is proud to have checked each objective off of the five-year strategic plan.

“I can honestly say that everything on the strategic plan that we’d set in place in 2019 came to fruition, pandemic or no pandemic. I feel pretty good about that.”

Another point of pride for McLean is having expanded the food bank team to meet the organization’s expansion and increased need.

“If you’re going to serve that increased number of people, it’s nice to have a couple for regular staff members and not be completely reliant on our volunteers, as fantastic as our volunteers are. But they have lives too and most of them are retired. Being able to go from a three-member team to now an eight-person team, having a volunteer and event coordinator, having a client intake coordinator, having a warehouse logistics coordinator, I really enjoyed putting that team together and having these delightful people I shared my Monday-to-Fridays with.”

The increased need for food bank services in Okotoks and across the Foothills is something that’s continued to ramp up since the food bank fully opened its doors following the end of COVID restrictions.

“We started to see an increase in 2021, and it just kept going higher and higher in 2022 and it’s off the charts now. I don’t see it coming down, certainly not for the first six to eight months in 2024. But knowing we have those resources in place, it’s a comfort. The demand may be there but I’m fairly confident that our food bank will be able to meet that demand,” says McLean.

The fact that the Okotoks Food Bank has been able to meet that need is due not only to the team at the food bank but also to those who have supported it through the years through donations.

McLean saw and oversaw countless events, food drives, and fundraisers in her years with the food bank.

“We’ve been able to keep pace largely due to the help of our neighbours, our community, our local businesses, and the big fundraisers, never forget those.”

McLean’s final month with the Okotoks Food Bank alone saw some highlights in that regard.

The CPKC (formerly CP) Holiday Train rolled through town for the first time since 2019, marking her first and last Christmases with the food bank. Also in December, the annual Okotoks Food Bank Christmas Concert saw a record-breaking $120,000 raised.

“It’s incredible to me that that is all third-party. We have a little bit to do with it but so much of it is done by the community, the donors, the sponsorships, that is a thing of beauty… To come in at $120,000 just when I’m ready to leave, that was an incredible tribute.”

Assuming the role of executive director this year is McLean's colleague, Bente Yanota.

McLean will continue to serve on the board of directors for both the Okotoks Food Bank and Food Banks Alberta, and says she'll be there to help out and answer any questions that may arise.

She's hesitant to call her next chapter "retirement," preferring instead to call her next few years a "sabbatical." McLean intends to dedicate a few years to quality time with her husband, who's been retired for over three years. She'll be tending to her horse and bees, and beyond that, she's considering getting involved the local arts scene.

McLean knows as well as anyone that you can't predict what's next, plan as you may, but regardless of what lies ahead, she'll always be glad she decided to make that change back in 2018.

“There are so many joyful moments in this job, I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to think it’s a doomy, gloomy job. I said it at the Christmas Concert speeches, these last five years have truly been the most fulfilling time of my life in any kind of work capacity. I just have so many happy memories. Seeing smiles on clients’ faces because they know they’re bringing food home for their kids. The joy of our local businesses. Our local sports teams, I will probably never forget the Okotoks Dawgs. They were having a special night to strike out hunger and I got to throw the first pitch… How involved this community is to not have their neighbour go hungry.”

More information on the Okotoks Food Bank can be seen on their website.