“Rooted” is all about the people and places that make us proud to call our community home.
Managing a Food Bank under ordinary circumstances can be a challenge. Doing it in during a global pandemic really makes you put all your skills to the test as Debbie Marson is finding. Yet somehow, the Executive Director is doing it every single day in North Bay with a smile on her face and a positive attitude, all the while looking out for the people who need that help the most.
“It is much like our community hospital in the sense that, nobody really wants to have to go there, but you are so thankful that it’s there as a resource when you do need it,” says Marson.
She has only been running the show at the North Bay Food Bank since the beginning of this year, and what a time it has been to take over with a provincial shutdown mandated just over two months into her taking on the role.
Marson says since the shutdown was enacted, the kindness of North Bay’s citizens has really shone through.
“We have to take care of each other and there are so many giving people in North Bay and the surrounding area that know that the Food Bank is an integral part of other people's lives and being able to survive,” she explains.
“Especially in a pandemic environment. Having that resource behind you and the support of the community, it allows us to give back to those most vulnerable. It’s vitally important right now.”
Marson comes to the North Bay Food Bank as a person already established as a family face in the community. Since 2013 she had worked at the Canadian Cancer Society and was one of the go-to people for many of their events over that time.
“I started out there as their volunteer engagement coordinator, so it was really a very positive side to the Canadian Cancer Society, meeting people who wanted to help and who had the time to do it, made the events and the fundraisers actually happen,” says Marson.
“When I went over to the fundraising specialist side, I got to dive into more directly dealing with sponsors and the community and again volunteers who wanted to make these events happen. Then as the office started to downsize, I was the only front-line person.”
Marson says that meant sometimes being the first person that a newly diagnosed cancer patient would see when they were seeking help.
“Seeing those in need come in with questions about what I do for treatment or financial support or just wondering about what’s next for them, I was able to lend an ear. I’m not an expert on therapies and how to live with cancer and how to get through it, but sometimes all people needed was a place to cry, to vent, to talk to someone and I was thankful to be able to do that for them.”
Marson says that has become a part of what she does everyday now in her new role.
“Flipping over to the North Bay Food Bank side, you still see that people are coming in and they want to talk and share why they are there and there are some people who don’t and you just want to reach out to them and say ‘this is ok, it is ok to be here.”’
Giving back and lending a hand was something instilled in her from a young age.
“Growing up, my dad was always a firm believer in taking care of other people,” says Marson.
“We were five kids with two parents and my dad worked. We didn’t have a mansion on the best street in town but what we did have was a place for opportunity. If my friends needed to eat, they could eat, if they needed a place to stay, they would have that in our home.
My dad was very integral in being an overall good person and being a good community member and I think having the opportunity to start at the Cancer society and landing at the Food Bank, it just made sense for me to be able to put that goodness back out into the community.”
Marson grew up in Cobalt and first moved to North Bay in 1984 to take Dicta Typing at Canadore College. She went back to Cobalt for a few years, before returning to study Journalism-Print and during that journey, met her future husband Heath, which she says was the best thing that could’ve happened to her.
“It was a two-year program and funding my own way through college, the money ran out,” says Marson.
“So, when I met Heath, I had the opportunity to stay in North Bay and work. I was really, lucky to land a job at a marketing firm you may have heard of called Fedeli Advertising. That was my first real job in North Bay was under Vic Fedeli for a couple of years which led me into the marketing world for 25 more years under Ben Farella and lastly Scott Clarke.”
She says those are the skills she needed to make her way into her next career.
“It was a great experience and I got to use some of those marketing and communications skills that I learned in college but I also learned a lot from all three of those gentlemen that in turn helped me in my next two roles with the Canadian Cancer Society and now with the Food Bank.”
Marson also became a part of an event that many say helped pave the way for an Ontario Hockey League team to call North Bay it's home. She was part of the committee that brought Kraft Hockeyville to the Gateway City.
“Hockeyville in 2007 was the best experience of my life and with my family by my side,” says Marson.
“Heath and my son Devon were integral parts of the original Pond Hockey Committee that morphed into the Hockeyville Committee and we spent a lot of time between March 17th and the game day September 17th, organizing the event. We had to work with Kraft and the NHL, the NHLPA and CBC to make this event happen for our community and it was our proudest moment as a family to be able to put that forward and see thousands of people enjoy seeing the Stanley Cup and an NHL exhibition game here in our city.”
Marson adds it puts a feather in the cap for a town that lost its original OHL franchise but proved to everyone that North Bay can be a hockey city.
“We have always been a hockey family, I wasn’t growing up that’s for sure, Heath thankfully introduced me to the Montreal Canadians. He’s always coached, and Devon had always played minor hockey and so we were engulfed in it for many years. And Hockeyville happened to come near the end of Devon’s minor hockey career and so that gave us our last kind of 'hurrah”' moment. It also showed that our community loves hockey.”
And perhaps without hockey, Debbie Marson is not currently running operations at the North Bay Food Bank. She’s likely helping people in some other way, shape, or form but it’s through a hockey-based program in which Marson first had an interest in doing something down the line with the Food Bank.
“It started with Coach for Food, way back when our son was playing in minor hockey we always participated in that program and we got to see the benefit years ago,” she says.
“Fifteen to17 years ago we saw how the food bank supports our community, so it had always been a favourite charity of mine. Then when the opportunity came up to apply for the executive director position I thought, well this is exactly where I need to be to move on to the next step.
"The Canadian Cancer Society was a great platform to build a bit of fundraising experience for a not for profit group, but then to be able to take that over to a locally funded Food Bank where it can really affect some changes with a positive outcome that’s what really sealed the deal for me.”
Marson says she’s always believed that when something breaks your way you should take it as a sign and give it your full effort.
“I’ve always felt that you have to take the opportunities that are given to you and you hone your skills and you do something good with them,” she says.
“Here at the North Bay Food Bank, I’m putting everything I know to the test when it comes to dealing with our most vulnerable. To overseeing the food bank on the operational side and managerial side and just making sure our community knows how much we appreciate the efforts they are giving us with their donations and their support.”
Marson says not a day goes by where she isn’t impressed with how many people are willing to give back.
“We are so fortunate to experience the generosity of people here,” she says.
“Every day people message me asking what we need and what can they buy and drop off for us. The neighbourhoods that are doing their own community collecting and bringing them in, the Kenwood Hills group for example comes in once a week with hundreds of pounds of food because that neighbourhood and the people who live there are so willing to give. It’s like the faucet opens and North Bay just keeps letting it flow with that support. But we have to remember that as much as this is coming in, it is going right back out and we have to really watch and sustain the levels of food here because we don’t know how long this is going to last and we need to be ready every day for the increases that are happening.”
No matter how long this pandemic lasts its clear Marson’s leadership during this time has been a huge benefit to the city.
“To make an impact on your community means you really care, I think I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by a lot of people, family and friends and coworkers, that believe the same way that I do, and that community is community.”
If you have a story suggestion for the “Rooted” series, send Matt an email at email@example.com