Raising the Bar to Feed the Hungry

Bill Thomson had just retired from a career in electric engineering when he began volunteering with IVC Buffalo at the Food Bank of Western New York.

Bill Thomson didn’t need a miracle to feed the hungry multitudes in upstate New York. He just needed barcodes.

At least that’s what the Food Bank of Western New York needed. 

In 2016, the Food Bank was still using paper and pencil to track and distribute more than 15 million pounds of food a year. They had been trying to build a more efficient warehouse system for 20 years but just didn’t have the resources. 

Along came Thomson. A retired electrical engineer from Buffalo, he was just settling into his post-career life, when curiosity prompted him to check out the Ignatian Volunteer Corps Buffalo region website. Staring back at him was a notice that the Food Bank needed someone to help them build a barcoding system for their warehouses. 

It’s essentially what he’d been doing before he left RR Donnelly, the Fortune 500 digital communications and printing company — high-speed printing and documentation verification. In other words, he developed a lot of high-speed barcoding systems. 

“I’ve had a good career and I’ve been fortunate,” Thomson says of his desire to volunteer through IVC. “I just thought giving a little bit of time would be a good thing to do.”

That decision revolutionized the Food Bank’s warehouse operating system and continues to help the agency put food on the tables of more than 140,000 individuals around four, far-flung counties in upstate New York. 

The Food Bank of Western New York moves more than 15 million pounds of food, helping to feed more than 140,000 people a year. Photo courtesy of Food Bank of WNY

“Bill was just incredible and we really appreciate the time he devoted to help us feed our hungry children, our families and veterans who are in need in our region,” says Catherine Shick, public and community relations manager at the Food Bank. “He made it possible for us to do it in a much more efficient manner.”

Thomson jumped into the role soon after he joined IVC in the fall of 2016. He quickly learned about the Food Bank operations and warehouse management system and soon was in his element. He assessed what was needed, evaluated the available software for the task, developed a timeline and schedule for set up and implementation, and developed a system unique to the needs of the Food Bank, Shick says.

He worked beyond expectations, adds Minnie Wyse, director of the IVC Buffalo regional office. He came in whenever he was needed. “And in under 10 months, he had the barcode working at the Food Bank.”

Thomson was drawn to the IVC community because he’d sent his son to a Jesuit high school and wanted to learn more about Ignatian spirituality. His first steps were hesitant as he began attending the monthly meetings while he put his days in working with the Food Bank. 

He was a little intimidated, he admits. He felt his engineering background paled to those of other volunteers, who included former professionals like a superintendent of schools. “We have some pretty capable people at the meetings.” 

But as he put in time with the Food Bank and with the IVC community, his faith life deepened. “The IVC meetings helped give me an understanding of what’s important,” he says. “They gave me an opportunity to learn about Ignatian spirituality and how to appreciate the good things we have.”

By the end of his first year with IVC, Thomson not only transformed how the Food Bank operated, he had undergone inner changes that continue to have an impact on how he lives his day to day.

“When things don’t go as smoothly as you want and you’re challenged, some of the readings [from Ignatian resources] put things into perspective and help you not to be too discouraged,” Thomson says.

It’s a guidepost that helps him today as he volunteers at his new IVC assignment at the Rural Outreach Center, a multidisciplinary service that helps clients strengthen their ability to care for their families through counseling, education and job training and resources. That he accepted a post where his skills are not as clearcut a match as they has been at the Food Bank is evidence of how Ignatian spirituality has both opened him and grounded him, he says. 

Last year, the Food Bank recognized Thomson and his contributions to the agency during a special luncheon.  “He was humbled and didn’t think he had done anything great,” recalls IVC’s Wyse. “Today, I just step back and I watch him unfold and watch him travel in his own journey — and it is such a beautiful thing to see.”