As shoppers bustle about grocery store aisles, Ailsa Lenk stops from time to time to examine the ingredient labels of food she’s considering for her dinner plate.
She’s better now at knowing if the ingredient comes from an animal, but when she’s unsure, the Saanich resident will grab her cellphone and text her query to experienced vegan Dave Shishkoff.
“You can go off on the Internet, and research for yourself and spend hours doing it – and I fully support doing that too,” Lenk said. “But it’s also really nice to be able to ask somebody.”
She recently has been able to go all the way with veganism – and stick with it – since she was partnered with her vegan mentor through a free new Vegan Buddy program that quietly launched in Greater Victoria last fall.
For Lenk, the program has taken the guesswork out of following a lifestyle that doesn’t include animal products – from food and vitamins to toiletries and animal-friendly clothing and footwear, as well as products that aren’t tested on animals.
Shishkoff has been pairing screened vegan mentors with aspiring vegan buddies through his work with the Victoria chapter of animal rights group Friends of Animals. About 11 mentors and 12 buddies have so far signed up for the program.
“If you’re isolated and you don’t know many vegan people, (veganism) can be a challenge for sure,” said Shishkoff, who serves as Lenk’s mentor.
Their partnership proved instrumental in helping her smoothly transition from a vegetarian diet to a vegan lifestyle about two months ago.
“When you’re doing something that’s not the norm, I think it’s really helpful to have a mentor,” said Lenk. “I really needed someone who knew their stuff because I tend to like to know the reasons I’m doing things.”
At first she wanted to know what she could have for breakfast in place of eggs.
“Breakfast was one of my concerns because being in carpentry, which is physically demanding, I didn’t want to be starving by nine o’clock in the morning,” she noted.
Knowing how and where to start is a hurdle the Vegan Buddy program addresses for people who say they want better health, to have less of an ecological footprint on the planet and to be mindful of all living creatures – from farm animals to honey bees.
Those reasons prompted Michelle Dagg to become a vegan last summer, but until she met her vegan mentor Jenn Marr last fall, she struggled through the unfamiliar process.
With Marr’s guidance, Dagg said she began eating better and her energy was restored.
“I felt more confident in the selection of foods I was choosing,” said Dagg, the kind of support and guidance her own mentor would have appreciated during her transition three years before.
“When I went vegan, my family wasn’t very supportive at first,” said Marr.
In addition to health and nutrition, the Friends of Animals Vegan Buddy program can advise newcomers on animal-free products, from soap and safety footwear to candles.
“It’s an effort to be more in tune to everything around you, and what impact you’re having on other lives around you,” said Shishkoff, who believes he too would have benefitted from an experienced vegan mentor when he first embraced the lifestyle 20 years ago.
“I am always empowered by (mentoring) and I certainly enjoy the process when I see people make shifts in their lives,” he said.
Without Shoshkoff’s guidance, Lenk said she wouldn’t have eased into veganism like she did, and navigate the grocery store shelves with such confidence.
She can even envision herself as a future mentor one day who is just a text message away “to help you know where to go to shop so you’re not frustrated all the time trying stores where you can’t find what you want,” Lenk said knowingly.
To sign up for the Vegan Buddy program, visit www.thevictoriavegan.com.