'He provided that simple embrace of human connection'

CATHERINE LITT / Kamloops Daily News
January 15, 2013 01:00 AM

Joe Shields played the perfect Santa at Kamloops Food Bank as he stocked a hamper in this 2008 photo. Shields, who died Saturday at the age of 78, was a key volunteer at the food bank, whose volunteerism extended far beyond his annual Christmas role.

It was a classic Joe Shields moment - understated yet unforgettable - the kind of moment that, if you were lucky enough to witness it, reminded you of all that was good and kind in the world.

It happened about seven years ago. Shields was at a fundraising auction for the Kamloops Food Bank when he noticed in the crowded room a three-year-old boy admiring one of the items, a tiny toy truck.

Shields won the item and, without fanfare and after most of the people had gone for the day, he quietly presented it to the little boy. A simple act of generosity repeated in countless different ways over Shields' lifetime.

"That's just kind of how he was," said friend June Puhallo, as she retold the story on Monday. "Joe was always doing things for other people."

Puhallo is one of many friends and former volunteers of Kamloops Food Bank who are mourning the loss of a man who was an integral member of the community.

Shields died on Saturday at Ponderosa Lodge. He was 78 and had been in declining health for some time.

For years, Shields volunteered at the Wilson Street food bank, where he served in a variety of official and unofficial capacities - board director, senior peer counsellor, Christmas party Santa Claus and surrogate grandfather, among them.

He was, prior to his declining physical health, a big, burly lumberjack of a man, an imposing figure whose deep and memorable laugh cut through a thick white beard, whose signature suspenders framed a heart as pure as they come and whose welcoming arms had the power to heal the most wounded soul.

Shields ran Joe's House, a little white house across the street from the food bank's main building, from which he served coffee, tea and pastries from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the week. At Joe's House, he lent a compassionate ear to lonely seniors and dispensed grandfatherly advice to street youth.

He gave people something intangible, said Marg Spina, Kamloops City councillor and former executive director of the food bank, something as valuable as a hamper of groceries.

"It was a personal connection," said Spina.

"He was finding ways to connect with them to make them feel that they mattered. He filled all kinds of niches to different people but I think it really boiled down to one thing: he provided that simple embrace of human connection."

Shields ran the house faithfully for years until his failing health forced him to cut his hours back. He spent his final months in Ponderosa Lodge with daily visits from his wife, Elsie, and regular visits from friends such as Spina and Puhallo.

But even though he was no longer a daily fixture at the food bank, his presence was still felt, said Bernadette Siracky, who took over from Spina as executive director in 2008.

"Joe was so incredibly dedicated to the food bank," said Siracky.

"He approached everybody with such respect and compassion and he had this really deep laugh that was just contagious. His smile lit up his whole face. . . . He just was always a positive energy."


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