- More than just a food bank. By Paula Larson.
Neighbor Helping Neighbor
We pride ourselves on community in Gig Harbor, but some of our neighbors go above and beyond.
The volunteers who run the Gig Harbor Peninsula FISH Food Bank and Community Services have lived by their motto “Neighbor Helping Neighbor” for more than 41 years. Located near the Gig Harbor waterfront, FISH is the only food bank in Gig Harbor, and it is an all-volunteer effort.
“We have 100-percent volunteers, no paid employees. We are completely supported by the community,” notes Amy Gartlan, GHP FISH communications director.
It is all about community for the 200 or so volunteers who make this nonprofit go. Volunteers ranging from high school students to those in their 90s are dedicated to helping people in our area who find themselves in need. These volunteers manage a food bank to help people who experience food shortages, but they do so much more.
FISH also provides free clothes, diapers, toys for kids, food for pets, emergency financial assistance and help with transportation for people in need. They provide a space for social services to meet with clients who might not be able to make the trip to Tacoma or Bremerton. They have an Education Aid Program that gives financial assistance to pay for books, utilities and other expenses for people in financial need who are pursuing an education. FISH also collects toys and bikes for holiday gifts for children. They even have a birthday closet where parents can pick out a toy for their child’s birthday.
FISH serves a nine zip code area that includes the Gig Harbor and Key Peninsulas. In 2016 they served 8,814 clients, including 3,043 children coming from all walks of life. Around half of their clients are either elderly or disabled.
“We are talking about all kinds of people on the margin, and it takes nothing to push you over,” says FISH Board President Ron Coen. “An unexpected medical bill, your furnace breaks … it doesn’t take much.”
The food pantry is set up like a little grocery store, where volunteers help patrons as they shop for food and other items their families use rather than being given a bag of items. FISH has found this to be a more comfortable experience for those who depend on them.
“Folks don’t want to use us, they really don’t,” says Gartland. “What’s so great about the shopping area is that they can come and shop. They aren’t just given a bag of food. That’s part of it, the compassion and the dignity.”
“They just go up and down the aisles, just like you would in the store,” adds Coen. “Baby formula, things like that, that’s a big deal. Diapers, too.”
All of these services are made possible by the volunteers and by our community. FISH runs on cash donations, food donations, food drives and contributions from stores and other community businesses. Three times a week, volunteers collect food from local grocery stores. Cash donations pay for perishable foods like meat, milk and other foods above and beyond what’s donated. Local gardeners grow fresh produce for the food bank. It’s all made possible by our neighbors who are dedicated to helping neighbors.
“We will have people who will come in and drop off $500, $1,000 or 10 bucks. That’s the thing that keeps us going,” says Coen.
Pierce County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, and the Gig Harbor area is growing by leaps and bounds. As the population rises, more and more folks find themselves in need of a little help. The number of people this group has assisted has more than doubled in the last 20 years, which means their 4,800 square feet of space (plus the full-time cargo container outside) can no longer meet their needs. So GHP FISH is looking to build a new facility.
“The usage over the last 20 years has grown just like the population,” notes Coen. “That’s the thing that really drives the [need for] expansion. There’s no way we can not expand if we are going to keep pace, and we need to make the expansion big enough so that it’s going to hold us for awhile.”
FISH is looking to build a 7,000-square-foot building that would allow them to better serve a growing community. A building designed for their needs would allow them to store and display more food, clothes and other necessities. The new facility would also be more accessible to their elderly and disabled clients and provide space for more social services.
Coen and Gartland note that they have received a lot of support from Gig Harbor’s mayor, city manager, city council and other agencies. They are working with local government to identify suitable land on which to build. FISH has some money set aside to pay for a new building, but they are now in fundraising mode for the balance as they look into the future.
“We have about $230,000 that’s been dedicated to [a new building]. We figure we’ll need about $2.5 million because we want the building to be efficient; it has to meet codes and all that,” says Coen. “You want to build out in a way that’s going to be long term.”
As FISH turns their attention to raising funds for a new facility, they will continue to do what they do best—be neighbors helping neighbors.
If you would like to learn more or are interested in volunteering, check their web page GHPFISH.com or give them a call at 253.858.6197.