Gerry Belanger crowned 2020 Essex Citizen of the Year

- He has been an Essex Area Food Bank volunteer since 2002 -

by Sylene Argent

Early last Thursday morning – just as the sun was greeting the day – buses were picking up school-aged students for class, squirrels were scurrying around, collecting walnuts in preparation for the upcoming cooler months, and long-time Essex Area Food Bank volunteer, Gerry Belanger, was already hard at work, setting up for another food distribution day to benefit those who rely on the community service during economically stressful times.

  What was unique about last Thursday morning was, as Belanger prepared for the busy day before himself and fellow volunteers, there was a group of individuals in the parking lot, ready to recognize his years of effort that has benefited individuals and families across the region for nearly two-decades.

  Belanger was surprised, and, at first, a little confused to have a group enter the Food Bank so early, but, with balloons and a congratulatory sign in hand, Marnie Aldridge, of the Essex Railway Station, Councillor Morley Bowman, Holy Name Knights of Columbus Grand Knight Peter Youngson, and Essex Rotarian Jim Wallace were proud to announced Belanger earned the 2020 Citizen of the Year Award.

  What is special about Belanger winning this award is that his predecessor, Eileen Clifford, founder and heart of the Essex Area Food Bank, earned the Essex Citizen of the Year distinction in 1998. And Clifford’s vision and passion for the Food Bank was all Belanger could speak of when hearing his own efforts were to be recognized.

  “You have done a lot over the years,” Bowman said to Belanger, noting his volunteer work has helped put a wonderful mark on Essex.

  “This was Eileen’s baby. She made the town known,” Belanger responded, noting it was Clifford who recruited him as a volunteer all those years ago, when he was a member of the Knights of Columbus. “She was a fighter.”

  That was in 2002, and he has been instrumental in the service organization ever since.

  His first interaction with the Essex Area Food Bank was when he volunteered to help out at a Knights of Columbus fish fry, which benefited the local food distribution organization.

  He recalled, later on, when Clifford’s health began to deteriorate, being asked to meet with her on a Sunday. During that meeting, Clifford asked Belanger if he would be up to taking over the reins of the local food distribution service, one she was proud to be able to produce protein and milk for the families and individuals in need.

  Food Bank volunteers, Belanger said, “try to help people, and they [the clients] certainly appreciate it.”

  Bowman noted the Citizen of the Year Committee, which is comprised of a representative of partnering service clubs – The Essex Rotary Club, the Holy Name Knights of Columbus Council (3305), Heritage Essex, and the Essex Legion – made the decision that Belanger would be this year’s recipient a week ago, after reviewing an above-average number of submissions from community members.  

  Typically, the recipient is honoured during a banquet held at the Essex Legion in November, which doubles as a fundraiser for Heritage Essex, a committee that maintains the historic Essex Railway Station. Because of the pandemic, organizers are looking to arrange a way to celebrate this year’s recipient, following provincial guidelines.