“When you empower individuals, it automatically gives them dignity and it builds community.”
Looking back on her childhood, Elizabeth Lewis-Crudgington recalls growing up in a home of “love and laughter,” where she and her four siblings (two elder sisters; one younger sister and brother) never saw their parents argue—“not even once.” Instead, Elizabeth (Liz) remembers each morning starting out with a toast between her parents, Arnold and Sheila Lewis.
“They would toast each other with orange juice and say ‘I love you,’” says Liz. Then they’d go about their day, making time for another toast at lunch, and again in the evening. “They were such loving people.”
Liz describes life for the Lewis family, which started out in India, as privileged. Her father was an engineer with Indian Railways. Working for the government, he and his family enjoyed the benefits of living in “sprawling 15-bedroom houses built during the time of British rule in India, complete with fireplaces and a team of housekeepers,” she says. But they never took it for granted. And they never forgot to give back to those less fortunate.
“My dad always brought home kids whom he found begging at the railway stations, because they had run away from home,” she says. “He would encourage them to take care of their personal hygiene and enrol them in school, and then he’d find their parents and send them back home with a little money in their pockets.”
The Lewis’ also invited hundreds of railway workers to their home every Christmas. They decorated the estate with lavish ornaments, hired a band and prepared “lots and lots and lots of sweets” for every guest, and Sheila stayed up late into the night sewing scarves and handkerchiefs—homemade gifts for each one of the workers.
“I saw altruism at its very best in my own home growing up,” says Liz.
That strong foundation of love, compassion, hospitality and generosity is something she has carried into her adult life. As Executive Director of Vancouver, B.C.’s Quest Food Exchange since 2008, she helps provide people with the sustenance they need.
Quest forms a bridge between local wholesalers, supermarkets and farmers, and social service agencies whose clients need access to nutritious food. Through their not-for-profit grocery stores, and by delivering raw food materials directly to agencies for their own meal programs, Quest helps feed approximately 29,000 people a month.
But it’s about more than just food. Liz believes in empowering people with choices so they can go further in life and strive to meet their potential. Quest’s core values revolve around dignity, community and sustainability—values that go to the heart of her upbringing; values she continues to live by every day.
In addition to love and laughter, Liz’s childhood featured plenty of outdoor play and indoor reading. (Enid Blyton was a favourite, then James Hadley Chase, John Grisham… “We loved adventure.”) There was also music. Her mother taught piano, and the notes of the keystrokes always rung out through every home the family lived in.
And there were many homes.
“My dad always believed that travel was the best education,” says Liz. As a girl, she and her family visited nearly 30 different cities around India. When Liz and her siblings finished their education in India, and travel restrictions became a hindrance, Arnold moved the family to Kuwait in 1976 so they could see more of the world.
In Kuwait, she settled into her new life. She worked in administration at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR), got married in 1977, and had two daughters, Melanie (now 36) and Marella (now 28).
The family stayed in Kuwait until the 1990 invasion. They were on holiday at the time; it was on the morning they were scheduled to return home that they learned that Kuwait had been invaded.
Fortunately they had already started the process of immigrating to Canada, after Liz visited one of her sisters in Vancouver’s North Shore and fell in love with the area. So, in 1991, with only their vacation suitcases and the balance of their holiday funds, she and her clan embarked on what she calls the “third adventurous phase” of her life: After experiencing two very different cultures, in India and Kuwait, she moved to North America, becoming a Canadian citizen in 1994.
Charting her course
When Liz bought her home in North Vancouver, she made a strong enough impression on her real estate lawyer that he offered to hire her and train her as a notary public. She accepted, and the offer quickly expanded to join him in setting up the infrastructure for title insurance in B.C.
She spent 17 years working with the lawyer, Gordon Alteman, going on to become vice-president of his firm, Lender Services Ltd., and manager of the pacific region for the title insurance company, First Canadian Title (FCT)—“the largest mortgage processing centre in B.C.” Their success was immense. “A very busy law firm will typically process about 500 transactions a month,” she says. “We were processing more than 7,000.”
Always keen to take initiative, Liz had set up a network of 350 lawyers across B.C. to work with the company, as well as a call centre that fielded 30,000 calls each month. Their client roster included more than 1,000 banks and credit unions.
By 2008, exhausted from workdays that often began with east coast calls at 3am Vancouver time, Liz (along with Gordon) was ready to retire. She’d been involved with Don Bosco’s Children’s Home and Child Haven International, both not-for-profit organizations that raise funds and support for underprivileged children and women in developing countries. Her plan was to stop working, and travel to Tibet and India to intern for the organizations.
But that wouldn’t begin until 2009. It was only September 2008. And Liz never sits idle for long—especially when there are initiatives that require her involvement and people in need of her help.
Gordon sits on the Board of Directors for Quest Food Exchange. When it came to his attention that the organization needed an interim Executive Director, he asked Liz if she would step in.
At first, she was wary of the amount of work it would entail. Looking at where the organization stood in 2008, she saw plenty of opportunity for expansion and improvement. Coming off an intense 17-year busy streak, where her stress level was constantly at “11 out of 10,” she was reluctant to dive back in.
“But you know, you have these conversations with yourself,” she says. “I asked myself: ‘When you want to help someone, whose terms do you help them on?’”
She tells the story of a woman she used to employ as her housekeeper during her days at FCT—“an amazingly bright woman who hadn’t finished high school, but I knew she had the potential to finish.” Liz hired her with the agreement that she would complete her high school courses. “But she was quite the handful!” says Liz. The woman routinely showed up several hours after she was meant to, always with an excuse (her cat ran away; she lost her keys; her car was blocked).
Understandably, Liz—who dealt with extreme stress everyday on the job and wanted her home life to be more balanced—reached the end of her patience, and eventually told her housekeeper that she couldn’t keep her on. The woman burst into tears, and Liz had an immediate change of heart.
“It was a reality check for me,” says Liz. “It made me feel one inch tall. I felt extremely, extremely embarrassed because I said to myself: ‘You wanted to help her finish her education and now just because it doesn’t suit you, boom, she’s out.’ So I kept her on.” (Liz’s housekeeper did complete her high school education, and continued working for Liz until she moved out of North Vancouver with her new baby.)
Back to 2008: Liz recalls that, in considering whether to accept the position at Quest, she had a similar conversation with herself to the one when she nearly let her housekeeper go. Liz had been planning to do charity work in Tibet and India, so she asked herself: “Why not focus on charity at home?”
“I was quite embarrassed to realize that, in all my 17 years living in Vancouver, I didn’t really get involved in the city’s need,” she says. “I would just drive tunnel vision from home to work and back to home; at the pace I was working, there was no time for anything else.”
But, as she is quick to point out, “you have to make time for things in life.” Things that matter.
Quest Food Exchange
Liz started out as Quest’s interim Executive Director in October 2008, but it wasn’t long before they made the position permanent.
Since joining Quest, she has opened three not-for-profit grocery markets in the Vancouver and Burnaby area, and launched Quest’s own food distribution centre at 2020 Dundas Street. She has secured partnerships with a range of organizations to ensure the quality of the food, and direct ever-greater resources to the not-for-profit grocery markets and social service agencies—not to mention, away from landfills.
“To give you an idea of scale, when I came on board we recovered $5.8M worth of food that first year,” she says. “Last year, we recovered $8.3M worth of food. That’s more than 800,000lbs of food diverted from landfills.”
In 2014, Quest opened Canada’s first grocery store with braille signage and audible scanners. The idea came about when Liz began working with Eddy Morton, a Paralympian for walking, wrestling and judo who is deaf and blind. Realizing that many others, like Eddy, face added challenges in completing the basic daily tasks most of us take for granted, she wanted to create a grocery market that was accessible to people with disabilities.
Eddy became an integral player in developing the proper signage for the market. Throughout that process, Liz discovered just how capable he already was. “I often think that we are the ones with the disability, not Eddy,” she says.
She is deeply touched by the increased sense of independence Eddy says he has gained from the experience. He now makes his own way to the market each day, and does his job without an interpreter, texting staff with a special braille keypad.
That potential for empowerment is what appeals most to Liz about Quest. She hopes to continue spreading that to all who shop at Quest’s markets and benefit from its supplies.
“When you empower individuals, it automatically gives them dignity and it builds community,” she says. “When I started at Quest I realized you cannot enable behaviour; you need to give people an opportunity and empower them to really do whatever they want to do. You give them the foundation and then you let them make their choices. That’s why I was so determined to build an amazing foundation at Quest so that people can make choices. When I decided I would (accept the position of Executive Director), I decided I would build a grocery market that I would be proud to shop in.”
Liz’s work, and Quest’s work, has garnered plenty of recognition over the years. In 2014, she received the BC Food Processors Association’s (BCFPA) prestigious Leadership Award. She also recently accepted a nomination to join the International Women’s Leadership Association (IWLA). And earlier this year, Quest won the Canadian Association of Foodservice Professionals (CAFP) Vancouver Branch’s Leadership Award for Outstanding Contributions in Community Services and Leadership.
“It’s very humbling to get all this recognition,” says Liz. “But I truly believe the recognition belongs to the community. Quest is just a conduit between those in the community who have the resources, and those in our community who need them… At the end of the day, Quest’s success, the number of people we feed, is an attribute and a success for all of the other partners and social agencies who have sent their clients Quest’s way. So it’s not really about Quest. All 29,000 people we feed a month are 29,000 individuals that other social service agencies have worked really hard with to empower them and get them to be self-sufficient.”
Toast of the town
Now, well into her “third adventurous phase,” Liz’s family life continues to thrive. She remains good friends with her former husband, and has a wonderful partner in Intergulf Development Group CEO Nabih A. Faris, who began helping her with Quest in 2010. She stays close to her siblings, who are spread out across Vancouver, as well as Toronto, Ontario, and India. And she’s very proud of her daughters: Melanie is setting up a counselling practice in West Vancouver, and Marella, who works with the West Vancouver School District as a special needs educational assistant, gave Liz her beloved first grandchild, Julian, in 2014.
Liz continues to find ways of empowering others, even beyond her work with Quest. A huge fan of argan oil, she travelled to Morocco last year and discovered a women’s cooperative that produces the oil. When she returned home, she struck up a partnership with California-based Lucia Bay, helping them launch Argan Oil by Lucia Bay—on the following terms, of course: that they buy argan oil from the women’s cooperative in Morocco and donate a portion of the proceeds to Quest.
“We’re empowering individuals across two continents,” she says. “And I also think I’m empowering women of my age. If you look at the benefits of argan, it’s got the best of the best in terms of the fatty acids, the vitamin E content. It’s used for all kinds of skin disorders: psoriasis, eczema, blemishes, stretch marks. Argan oil is not a fad that will die down after a few years; it’s an oil that’s been around for many hundreds of years.”
In addition, she’s working with a team of doctors at Project Skin MD to bring argan oil to Canada. Their targetted launch date is autumn 2015.
Liz also hopes to open many more grocery markets through Quest—across North America and even as far as Australia. “There’s such a need in so many communities,” she says. Her dream is to create something that will sustain itself, even beyond her involvement. “I think if you’ve left behind something that is continued by other people, you leave behind a legacy of helping individuals, empowering individuals.”
That legacy is something Liz holds very dear. Her father passed away in 2005 (followed by her mother in 2011). On his deathbed, she and her family asked if he felt he had left anything undone in his life. He had one answer: “Charity.”
“It’s funny he said that, because all of (my parents’) time here in Vancouver, they would get up in the morning, go to church, visit other seniors who were in care homes, and be involved in other charity work they had left off in India,” says Liz. “So it surprised me that he still felt he hadn’t done enough.
“And you know—” She pauses a moment to fight back tears.
“With all the work I do with Quest, I feel that I am carrying my father’s goals forward,” she says. “It’s his legacy. My parents raised children—and then grandchildren—who are in helping professions. Every one of their grandchildren is teaching youth or working with special needs or doing social work and counselling. When I think about how my role with Quest fell into place, it makes sense. I find it the most rewarding and humbling thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Liz may be too humble to recognize the depth of her warmth and kindness—how great her compassion is, or that she’s lived her whole life with generosity. But she is aware of three “basic philosophies” she follows in all things: respect the individual, honour your commitments and strive for excellence. “Those are the three that I live by,” she says.
With that, let’s raise up in toasting Liz, who is doing more than honouring her parents’ legacy: She’s creating a new legacy all her own, one that thousands (and probably more) are benefiting from.
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To learn more about Quest Food Exchange, or to donate or get involved, please visit questoutreach.org. You can also follow @QuestExchange on Twitter and ‘Like’ the organization’s Facebook page.
Thank you to Kickass Canadian Don R. Campbell for nominating Liz.