There’s a social media trend that takes place this time every year where people make a daily effort to mention something they are thankful for. You have to love Thanksgiving for bringing an appreciation of the now center stage. I confess, I love this. Seeing people look around at their everyday lives and comb it for things to be grateful for satisfies me on a soul level, and makes me look at my own blessings in a more heartfelt way. I think we all, at some time or another, feel like we could be crushed by the dark forces that seem to conspire against us. The care expressed in gratitude is like an antidote to gloom. Simple, yet entirely effective.
Continuing with my Northwest Harvest adventure, I felt like I had stepped into an entire culture of care and gratitude. You walk through the doors and it’s November all year long. What they really do there, is acquire. It is a gathering point for foods of all kind. They’re packaged up and sent out to dozens of food banks all over the state. Because they are completely privately funded, they have the freedom to make their own rules, and with that, they choose inclusivity. No one hungry may be turned away. Unlike most organizations devoted to acquisitions, they are unique in that they would love to be out of business. A short customer list would mean a lack of hungry people. Until then, they will continue their gathering. Last week’s story saw the pick-up of donated produce at Inaba Farms in Wapato, and a warehouse sorting session.
This week the breadcrumb trail puts me in the path of the other Northwest Harvest truck driver, Andy Littrelle, and taking goods to a foodbank in Ellensburg, and then moving over to the Yakima Rotary Food Bank to help with a distribution.
I make it to the warehouse just as Andy is pulling the last pallet to the truck. It’s almost time to go. Today he is heading to the Apoyo Foodbank in Ellensburg. With the truck loaded, the door comes down and we hop in the cab. Andy has a routine when he drives this route.
He stops at the Selah Creek Rest Area as he’s driving over the hill and has his lunch in the truck. It’s a beautiful day for it. Perched on the ridge, the Valley is laid out before us in all its fall glory.
When we’re back on the road we have a chance to chat about the ins and outs of Northwest Harvest, which he loves. He says the people are awesome, and he’s been driving truck for them for about 8 years. He has a gentleness about him that echoes the lovely human sentiment I found in Big John. I think being a good person must be a hiring pre-req there.
We descend into Ellensburg and find our way to a small house on the Central Washington University campus. At first glance, it’s unmarked and unremarkable. A tiny building that could use some love. But good things are happening inside, and they are grateful for their space and maximize every inch.
Along with a couple of volunteers, I begin helping to unload the truck. Carol Hansen, the Warehouse Manager and Volunteer Coordinator is directing. As I head through the door I pass an area with all kinds of shoes and clothing that will be given out. We bring our boxes to rest in a room filled with other boxes and sacks of sundry items. Food is everywhere. The President and one of the original founders of Apoyo, Philip Garrison, comes around during the unloading, so I take the opportunity to chat him up. An emeritus professor from CWU, Philip has been involved with this endeavor for decades. He said their relationship with Northwest Harvest was established in the late 1990s, and that about 90 cents of every food dollar they distribute comes from them. It allows them to be. They receive deliveries twice a month, but if they need more it can be arranged lovingly. His words. The inclusivity at work—to provide food freely to anyone hungry enough to ask. Apoyo embraces this philosophy whole heartedly, and places no limits as to how many times a week/month, a person can come through. If you’re over 14 and can carry out of box of food, you are welcome to.
Two days later, on a beautifully clear, crisp Friday morning, I am walking through the back door of the Yakima Rotary Food Bank, a stone’s throw from Northwest Harvest. This is the last crumb on the trail. Friday is their one and only distribution day. Though I’m early, it’s already bumping with activity. As I stand there wide-eyed and looking lost, Al, a long time volunteer, greets me warmly. Diana, another volunteer who seems to unofficially coordinate, puts me at ease and lets me know how I can help. Despite the bustle, it’s an incredibly welcoming place. I see two women bagging up pears from a bin and I am reminded of meeting Big John in the pear orchard a couple of months ago. I have officially come full circle.I connect with Eric Anderson, the Community Coordinator and he gives me an overview. He is the sole employee. The entire endeavor is fueled on volunteer power. Some have been around since the food bank began in the 1970s. Some worked off community service and kept coming back even though their hours were fulfilled. One woman just moved here recently and was looking for a sense of community. Another said he’s had times in his life when he’s been in the line, and it felt right to give back. Overall, everyone is here because they want to be and a sense of kinship is palpable in the air.
Al offers to give me the nickel tour. Up front, different food stations are set up in a line where people come through one door, report how many people are in their households (the food bank’s only requirement) and then go through each station on the line and out another door. Behind that, it’s one large space with food being stacked up behind each area. As people move through the line, the station is constantly being restocked from the stores behind it. Everything slowly pushes forward. As the doors open and people start coming through, I get a feel for the flow. The line moves quickly, food is replaced, boxes and racks are moved out of the way, the food stores behind move forward. It’s an exercise in continuous motion for three straight hours. The place is buzzing in a gentle way. People come through with boxes, giant potato sacks, plastic or reusable bags, anything that works for them. There are volunteers dedicated to helping people out to their cars with their heavy loads if they need it. I end up at the bread station with Sue at the end of the line where I get to see the full boxes and bags and the contented people toting them. People are grateful, and happily so. The volunteers are warm and genuine. This place is where Thanksgiving lives. A coming together around food, where people on both sides of the line are happy to be there. When it’s over, the giant room full of food behind the line is nearly empty. Just under 500 families came through.
I feel very honored to have seen every stage of this process, and to have spent time with everyone who was so generous with their time. I was truly touched by how many wonderful people I met each step of the way that make giving back to their community a part of their daily lives. It was humbling in the best way.