A New Place to Call Home
FISH building on schedule
By Colin Anderson
When Jan Coen married a Navy man, she would be quickly introduced into what it was like to live within the greater military family. Service members are often moved around station to station or deployed for long periods away from their families. During this time, military families band together and help each other out with whatever they can in order to make life easier.
Jan and husband Ron saw firsthand the power of what a small community helping each other through difficult times can do to boost moral or alleviate a bit of weight and stress off one’s shoulders through simple deeds and assistance. After retiring from the Navy in 1975, the couple moved back to Gig Harbor, and Jan wanted to continue her drive to help and be of service to others. “I was looking around through local church groups and learned that there was no short-term assistance in the area,” she recalled. Jan brainstormed with other community members and, within a year, she had 15 volunteers and was providing what help she could to those in need.
By the 1980s, the opportunity to operate a food bank became available, and the Gig Harbor Peninsula FISH Food Bank was born. Jan, Ron, board members and countless volunteers have since provided a leg up to thousands of individuals and families in the area. “It’s amazing how this community cares about those suffering,” said Jan.
As more funds and donations come in, so have the services FISH provides to its clients. While it continues to provide food for those in need, it also tackles transportation assistance, help with rent and utilities, referrals for other services and even funds to help young people further their education in college or by attending trade school. As the organization has grown, its building (four homes cobbled together plus an old theater, as Jan puts it) is being pushed to the max of its limits. Food donations are stored off-site, meaning it takes volunteers a trip from the store to a storage unit, then another trip from storage to the food bank once there is room for it. The organization has been looking for a more efficient home for the better part of a decade and, as it turns out, their dream location was just a few steps away.
Just 376 feet from the current location will be the brand-new build, a 10,000-square-foot facility that will not only be beautiful and modern, but also help streamline its operations. Instead of food being stashed all over town, the new facility will have a full-scale warehouse in which drivers can pull up with donations, and other volunteers can organize and categorize them. Under current protocols, clients of FISH pull up to the facility, and volunteers bring them a box of food. Once things return to normal, the food shopping area will also be greatly expanded, as will the selections and nutritional options.
Instead of having cramped spaces for other services, the new location will have dedicated rooms for expanded clothing and household goods area, offices for staff, a conference room for groups, and private offices to provide a place for confidential client meetings.
“Gig Harbor has a strong tradition of taking care of our neighbors, and this new facility will ensure that the tradition will continue for generations to come," said Ron Coen, GHP FISH Board president.
While not currently under construction, all signs point to the project getting approval from the city. Both a builder’s representative and architect have provided what is needed, and the City of Gig Harbor Design Review Board approved that design earlier this year. An initial building permit was issued, and the organization has hit all items on its checklist thus far. It shouldn’t be too much longer now until they receive final approval from the city, in which case construction would begin this fall. If all goes to plan, the bulk of the work will be done throughout the winter, with final touches added in the spring of 2022. A grand opening celebration will take place shortly thereafter.
A project of this magnitude could not have gone forward without the hard work and dedication from those in the community. “When we started, we just wanted to be of service to the community. We’ve found that people are just so good hearted and want to help, and it’s amazing just how much this has grown,” said Jan.
The building will come in at a cost of roughly $8 million. There’s also an endowment of $500,000 set up. The land is leased for the next 99 years at a cost of $1 per year. FISH believes that the efficiency of the new building will make it more affordable to operate despite being larger than its current home.
Another advantage of a new home is the presentation for those utilizing the services within. Entering into a professional building and having private locations in which to discuss aid needed will be a boost to those seeking help. It’s a sign that the community cares enough about them to not just provide food but to create a location that’s warm and welcoming.
While Jan is eagerly awaiting the construction of her new home, the daily thank you cards and stories of success are what continue to give her the most pride. She’s encountered countless examples of the impact FISH has had on the community and sees those who they’ve helped keep the cycle going. “We had a woman come in the other day and say, ‘I was hungry in the ‘80s and you helped me; it’s my turn to give back.’” Another community member recently pulled up and popped the back of her car vehicle open with an entire Costco run, just because she wanted to do her part.
While the wait for the new building goes on, the need in the community does as well. The number of families and individuals in need that peaked during the height of the pandemic has subsided, however, FISH is still providing thousands of dollars in aid and food each month to those in need of assistance. Drivers are still needed to pick up food donations from local stores and grocers, and others to sort through household goods. Just a few hours a week can have a great impact on the community. “It’s an incredible community, and the support has been overwhelming,” said Ron. “When COVID hit especially, this community really came out to help their neighbors.”
The new build is further proof of that support. Once it’s completed, it will help volunteers give even more assistance and help FISH continue its mission for generations to come.
“Instead of just giving out fish, we want to give our clients a fishing pole,” said Jan.