Working Gear would not exist without our volunteers. As a way to pay gratitude, as well as inspire, Volunteer Stories is series of interviews that highlight our volunteers’ hard work as well as their experiences with Working Gear. We are excited to introduce our diverse family of volunteers to the Working Gear community.

Tonia Jurbin is Working Gear’s Industry Liasion 

Q. How long have you been involved with Working Gear?

A. In the fall of 2012 I was waking up to ‘the Early Edition’ on CBC and I heard Margaret Gallagher talking to someone about Working Gear before I even opened my eyes I said: “I bet I can collect 100 pairs of boots!”  I got my first pair of steel toe boots when I was 16 shortly after a classmate in my framing course dropped a 2 X 4 on my foot.  I wonder how many teenage girls in the late 1970’s made their mom take them steel toe boot shopping.  I was lucky, I found a pair of size 5 men’s – in later years I’d have to order from Ontario and wait weeks for my boots to arrive and it’s still hard to find boots that fit me properly.  I’ve been working around workshops, materials labs, heavy civil construction and remote sites in various roles ever since.  My first two jobs out of high school I was as an assistant cabinet maker, later a construction inspector, engineering technologist, surveyor, trade writer and editor, and finally as a senior engineer.

I am connected to people who wear boots!!  At first, my goal was to collect 100 pairs of boots but I was inspired by a colleague’s daughter who wanted to get 5 Syrian families sponsored for her 8th birthday – so I set a goal to collect 1,000 pairs of used boots before I retire, so far I’ve collected about 550 pairs of boots and about 30 boxes of other assorted PPE.

My employer has been supportive – I work in an industry that sadly sees many injuries and some fatalities.  I myself have experienced life-changing workplace injuries.  Most of the boots I collect come from colleagues from around the province.  I also have posters with me wherever I go, even on my bike rack, and I hand them out to everyone.  If I’m on my bike at a red light and there’s someone wearing boots beside me – I give him the 2-minute talk and a poster!  Just this morning a lady at the gym I’ve never seen before told me her boyfriend works in concrete, she left the locker room with some posters too.

Q.What are the reasons you got involved with volunteering with Working Gear and collecting boots in general?

A. I don’t feel like I’m volunteering, I collect boots.  I also collect hotel toiletries for the Society to End Homelessness in Burnaby.  It’s easy to do.  I work with a lot of people who wear steel toe boots and travel for work.  All you have to do is ask.  Everyone I ask says, ‘that’s a really good thing you’re doing’.  I’m hardly doing anything at all, I hand out posters, I talk to people and I keep boots out of the landfill.

Q. What is your view on volunteering?

A. I think volunteering enriches your life if you are supporting something you care about.  I care a lot about reducing waste, keeping stuff out of landfills and workplace safety.  I even wrote a blues song called ‘the job site prayer’ which I performed at the end of a safety lecture at BCIT.  You can be sure that the students will never forget the things they learned that might save their life that day.

Q. What is the most challenging/rewarding thing in collecting boots for Working Gear?

A. Two stories jump to the front of my mind.  A few years ago I met an engineer who was seconded to us.  As I got to know him I learned that he lost his father, also an engineer and his infant son within about a year of each other.  He had his dad’s boots that were almost new and he just couldn’t part with those boots until he met me, what a legacy to his father.

I was waiting in line at one of the small BC Ferry Terminals so I grabbed my pile of posters from the car and started knocking on the windows of every work truck in the line.  I was speaking with a traffic control person, when she learned some of the working gear clients are recovering addicts she shared a story with me I’ll never forget.  Her daughter has been living in a tent city and has overdosed and been revived numerous times over the more than 10 years she’s been addicted to drugs.  Every few years she finds her daughter and has cash with her to buy whatever drugs she needs to get through the night and begs her to come home and seek treatment.  The last time she found her daughter she almost came home with her and she will never give up trying to save her.  She said ‘I know there’s still a lot of good in her because she prostitutes herself out and takes the beatings so that the younger girls are spared’.  How can you ever forget talking to that mother?  I have a beautiful 23-year-old daughter, it was a very emotional connection.

Most challenging?   Well, I do work full time so I have to make time to stop when I’m on my bike or walking around construction sites.  When I retire I may just put on my own PPE (personal protective equipment) and start crashing site safety meetings!   There have only been about 3 rare occasions when I was rudely stopped mid-speech.  I try not to take it personally.

Q. How do you keep from burning out in your volunteer role, how do you find balance/ inspiration/ motivation.

A. I was visiting the working gear shop while I was on medical leave (from my injury) and while we were emptying the boxes from my workplace we found post-it notes in the boots with great messages like ‘you’re a star’ and ‘hope these keep your feet dry’.  I can’t believe how much support I get just for collecting boots and other assorted PPE, the way people respond to me when I’m collecting is very moving.  So were the notes of inspiration that my anonymous colleagues left in their old boots.

Truthfully, I’m mostly inspired by the other volunteers.  The first time I visited the shop I saw that every item of clothing and footwear had been lovingly labeled by the shop volunteers.  At the Xmass dinner I learned that there is a barber who gives the men haircuts, another volunteer is a stylist who helps the men put outfits together (working gear collects everything from boots to suits), another volunteer photographs the men before and after – I thought ‘what an amazing group of people’, then I realized, ‘I’m part of this group of amazing people, WOW!!

Q.What is something you wish people knew about working gear that they might not understand or might otherwise overlook?

A. It is important for people to understand that almost nothing is garbage, really!!   Sometimes it takes a little work to find out what to do with what we treat as garbage.  I think also that people who work in an office environment don’t understand how important our PPE is when we are working around heavy equipment and that it is not optional, no boots?  No job interview and certainly no work.  I also think people don’t appreciate that a decent pair of steel toe boots is expensive and a barrier to employment for many. Many people say ‘my boots are so old’ or ‘they leak or have holes’.  Well, if they can get the worker to his interview or to his first paycheck than that is good enough.  Please don’t toss them!!

Q.What’s your best advice for people that want to get involved but don’t know how or where to start?

A. I guess I’d say ask yourself what you really care and feel passionate about, talk to people who are involved with your passions and if you ask ‘is there anything I can do to help?’ you will find yourself volunteering!

Q. Anything else you would like to add?

A. I’d like to acknowledge all the people I work with that I’ve never met from around BC who donate boots and even collect boots in their regional offices for me, and the people in Burnaby who help out with the deliveries and pick-ups because often this happens when I’m out of the office.  I’d also like to thank working gear for inviting me to tell my story.

Photography Credit: Mihailo Subotic of Snap Edit Show Photography