KeelaCares: Empowering Our Team to Do More Good

David Schuman • Sep 28, 2020

It’s in our DNA

Illuminated red numerical dials counted down to zero as the Vancouver SeaBus pulled into port. The Keela team clustered together near the on-ramp chatting casually. The doors parted and we hightailed it to the bow for good seats.

As we looked out the windows, sunlight beamed down on a bright, unusually warm, February morning. Vancouver Harbour glistened as the SeaBus whisked us across to the Quay, the north shore mountains jutting into the sky beyond, beckoning us to our destination.

Decked in Keela t-shirts, sweaters, and brand new toques (beanies), we were all amped to show off our support by spending the day volunteering for one of our oldest and closest nonprofit clients, Backpack Buddies.

Backpack Buddies serves a grossly unseen and underrepresented population of the greater Vancouver area: School children who do not get enough to eat when they go home on the weekend. 

In this expansive and increasingly gentrified area, Vancouver exudes an air of wealth and progress. Shiny high-rises are set against a pristine natural backdrop, and you need not walk more than a few blocks before stumbling upon the next public green space or park.

Yet the business of doing more good is booming for Backpack Buddies.

20% of British Columbian children live below the poverty line, and three in ten don’t get enough food. The impacts of childhood hunger have severe and lasting consequences on education, social, and physical development.

Backpack buddies tackle the food insecurity crisis for BC children in need by packaging healthy meals that can be taken home over the weekend. The contents vary week-to-week but staples include, peanut butter and jam, canned soup and pasta, snack bars, and fresh fruit. 

The full-time staff of Backpack buddies numbers in the single digits, yet they provide between 200 and 300 bags for up to 70 schools each week. That’s a lot of children and a lot of bags. Backpack buddies’ permanent staff simply do not have the manpower to carry out their administrative tasks, facilitate the foodstuff and financial tract, and pack all these meals. 

Enter teams of volunteers from local businesses and organizations. Each week, these teams pack between 1,000 and 1,500 bags. 

Our Keela team was crossing the harbor that bright February morning to do just that.

As a B. Corporation, Keela has a responsibility to balance purpose and profit, to honor our central philosophy of social responsibility, and to take proactive and deliberate steps to address the critical issues facing society.

As we stepped off our aquatic transport, we were met by Christian Griffiths. He is the son of Joanne Griffiths, President and Co-founder of BPB, brother to Emily-anne King, Vice President and Co-founder, and personal friend and desk mate to many of Keela’s staff.

He guided our troupe on the short 10-minute walk up Esplanade Avenue past auto shops and former auto shops converted to hip new breweries, until we reached the warehouse/ office/ and home base of Backpack Buddies.

As we entered the room with its tall ceiling and deep concrete walls, we were met with thankful smiles from Joanne, Emily-anne, and Lorraine Winchester, Head of Operations and Logistics. Stacked all along the western wall were giant racks of food, snack, and drink. 

Our team was treated to a scrumptious breakfast of Harmony Donuts, a talk on the important work and impact Backpack Buddies has on the community, and then we set to work. 

Together, we came up with a system of packing that proved remarkably efficient. Our 10 volunteers split into two teams. One team of three runners and a second team of seven station agents. Runners would carry empty bags down the line of stations for the second team to fill. Bags were extended to waiting hands eager to release their goods.

Feet scuttled and hands flew in a steady rhythm of grab and release to the beats of Marvin Gaye, Taylor Swift, and everything in between. We were on a mission from good (cue the Blues Brothers) and our team moved as one, like it was something we practiced daily. 

We packed 1,500 bags in near-record time. Our team of marketers, sales representatives, customer success agents, developers, and leadership staff outperformed the sporty likes of the lululemon team.

In reality, this was our first team volunteer outing since the inception of a new Keela program, KeelaCares.

Every member of Keela’s staff is intrinsically tied to, and invested in, the nonprofit sector. We come from nonprofit organizational staff, give our time volunteering, and donate generously to the causes we believe in.

Keela gives nonprofit organizations the tools they need to more effectively fundraise, market, and communicate. In January of 2020, before anyone knew it would be the year of relentless trials and tribulations, Keela gave its own team the tools to do more good on a personal level.

KeelaCares is the employee service program that empowers our team to do more and to give more. 

The goal of KeelaCares is to strengthen the connection and create meaningful impact in 

  1. Our Team
  2. The Nonprofits We Work With
  3. Our Community

It consists of three programs that each member can draw from or add to.

  • Payroll Giving is the option to deduct donations automatically from our paychecks, breaking annual giving into manageable chunks. 
  • With Gift Matching, Keela will match up to $200 dollars annually, per employee. Our roster now stands at 25, totaling $10,000 per year.
  • Employer Supported Volunteering allows  our team to take paid time off to volunteer for nonprofit organizations and charities of our choosing.

Social impact is woven into the DNA of Keela. If the genotype is doing good, KeelaCares is simply one phenotype, its physical expression. 

We practice what we preach. To date, 75% of our staff have participated in one or more programs of Keela Cares, and we’ve still four months to go in a year that demands we all sacrifice a little more for the betterment of those around us.

Collectively, we cherished this initial team volunteer experience to bond with each other outside of the office environment. Working hand-in-hand for a purpose other than the one we typically do in our day-to-day brought us all closer. Shared goals and shared laughs will have that effect.

Image of Tasi wearing a sweater and toque reaching into a bin to pull out snacks. Elsie is beaming and holding up to her face a bag near full of food ready to be packed for a child in need.
Elsie is beaming with a near full bag!
Image of Tasi wearing a sweater and toque reaching into a bin to pull out snacks. Elsie is beaming and holding up to her face a bag near full of food ready to be packed for a child in need.
Tasi races to keep up with our runner Delainey

Individually, this experience has struck us in unique and significant ways. 

“I’ve been supporting Backpack Buddies as their Customer Success agent for nearly two years now. From helping them with technical support for their online donation forms to helping them physically carry out their mission was so surreal. I felt so connected to them even before walking in the doors because we’ve emailed so much, I just wanted to hug everyone when I finally got there!

This is honestly the best part about my job! People like the folks at Backpack Buddies make me feel like I’m part of their mission too, in my own way. There is so much love and care coming out of that warehouse, I’m grateful that my day job allows me to stand in the light of it.” – Elsie

And while we can no longer hug as many people as we might like due to COVID-19, the enthusiasm remains. 

When I spoke with Christian this past March, they were still figuring out new logistics for a new paradigm. For most, the weekend hunger gap became a week-long hunger gap as school was suspended. Big expansion plans halted. New safety measures were put in place. 

Still, BPB doubled down where they could by going directly to the source. They reached out to wholesale suppliers, corporations, and grocery stores to meet their food demands when their initial supply chain was compromised.

That enthusiasm Elsie and the rest of the team feels was echoed by an outpouring of support from the community in response to Covid. Backpack Buddies logged more than 200 new donors, more than $150,000 in new donations, and a phone line that would not stop ringing, just in the last two weeks of March.

By the end of June, Backpack Buddies was getting food into the hands of up to 2,634 children in need.

Of course, even before Covid, that sense of community also drove home for Tasi Gottschlag, Keela’s Chief Operating Officer. Her husband works as a counselor at one of the schools Backpack Buddies services. He sees first hand the positive impact the organization has on developing children. Though they work fields apart, Tasi and her husband were able to come full circle by supporting the same constituency. 

Our CEO and CoFounder, Nejeed Kassam, was also on scene. He likes to boast about how he’s in a texting relationship with Joanne and the BPB leadership team, but even he learned something new that day. BPB packages food for all diets. When Nejeed, a practicing Muslim, learned Halal food bags were also packed he was rocked as he thought of his own children and pledged to support even further. 

The KeelaCares program has given us as employees the tools to do more good by allowing us to devote more time, energy, and financial resources to the causes that we believe in.

Personally, I’m grateful to have been able to leave work an hour early on Tuesdays in order to Volunteer as a Ski Coach for disabled athletes at our local Grouse Mountain through VASS. And I’m doubly grateful that Keela is matching my donations up to $200. 

2020 has demanded more of us than anyone could have prepared for. Global pandemics and social justice movements sweep across the world. And so we all must decide how to respond, how to step up, how to ally ourselves.

Being part of the Keela team means we all give where we can. That’s just the kind of people Keela draws, and KeelaCares supports us in those efforts.

The Keela team and Backpack Buddies staff huddle together for a group photo in their warehouse and office.
The Keela team is all smiles after a hard day’s work.