Talking to Justin Mulcahy is a lot like watching an interview with a Conn Smythe trophy winner.
The player has just been named MVP of the NHL playoffs, but insists it’s not all about him.
The team did the work, he was just the beneficiary. He happened to be in the right place at the right time.
While Mulcahy characterizes his actions in the same light, his colleagues with the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services see things differently.
Mulcahy was recently named Vancouver Firefighter of the Year by his peers, management and union local for his longstanding commitment to a basic, fundamental principle: that every kid deserves healthy food regardless of income.
Mulcahy helped establish the Snacks for Kids Program in 2013, an entirely volunteer-driven operation that gets healthy meals to thousands of kids across the Vancouver School District who may otherwise go without.
“It’s not an individual award,” Mulcahy insists. “There are so many Vancouver firefighters that support our charity and work on this project and there are so many members of the community who have backed it. It’s really a great opportunity to showcase what we’re all doing and working together toward.”
As is the case with most upstart programs, the snack rollout started small. Mulcahy and a colleague got the ball rolling in 2013 and their efforts first reached about 165 kids. Now that number sits north of 2,000 and the program is in 40 schools across the city’s East Side.
“The Vancouver School District is delighted that City of Vancouver Firefighter Justin Mulcahy has been awarded the honour of Vancouver Firefighter of the Year,” said a VSB statement emailed to the Courier. “It is wonderful his dedication to the Vancouver Firefighter Charities’ Snack For Kids Program is being recognized with this award.”
The program started off entirely self-funded and was subsidized by way of firefighter pay and leg work alone. Businesses and philanthropists have since jumped on board and a volunteer pool numbering in the hundreds makes the whole thing work via a system of bi-monthly purchases and drop-offs.
The food delivered is meant to serve as a stop gap between meals — think veggie thins, beef jerky, granola bars — though larger, take-home bins full of food are offered during spring and winter break.
“We can’t think of someone who embodies the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services’ values of commitment to the community, and caring for the most vulnerable more than Justin Mulcahy, and we were honoured to name him as Firefighter of the Year,” fire department spokesperson Jonathan Gormick told the Courier.
A large part of the charitable venture is centred on subtlety. Deliveries are done specifically in such a way that students don’t know who, or why, certain kids are getting those meals. School teachers and staff let the firefighters know who needs what, and the rest is taken care of in a confidential way.
“We see a lot of trauma and accidents and, at times, fatalities,” Mulcahy said. “But what is more distressing at times for firefighters is seeing some of the human conditions people live with. This is just an opportunity for us to do something constructive in society. It’s kind of an extension of what we’re already doing in the community.”
Mulcahy says he and other firefighters have stacks of cards and letters of thanks from the various school communities. He says even the younger, elementary school-aged kids understand the significance of what he and his coworkers are doing.
That the program serves schools east of Main Street exclusively isn’t lost on Mulcahy either.
“We have an extremely high cost of living and some really low-income postal codes,” Mulcahy said. “But we also have people in every neighbourhood struggling to meet the demands of living in a city like ours. Even in what are now more affluent schools on the East Side, there are kids who fall through the cracks. We’re trying to fill in those cracks.”