‘Neighbors helping neighbors. That’s what we’re all about.’
A Gig Harbor Peninsula FISH food bank volunteer helped a woman into a truck recently while a man in a hat with a U.S. Marine emblem hopped into the driver seat.
The volunteer placed bags of food next to some laundry detergent and clothing before wishing the woman goodbye and closing the truck door.
“You have everything you need — some milk and some hotdogs,” the volunteer told the pair. “You should be good to go for a while.”
It’s a regular scene at Gig Harbor Peninsula FISH, a longtime food bank and community center that serves low-income residents across the two peninsulas.
Food bank leaders Jan and Ron Coen hope to raise $3 million to build a larger facility.
To that end, the city of Gig Harbor is working to transfer ownership of a parcel of city land to the nonprofit. The Coens want to build a new facility that would be just under 7,000 square feet and serve as a grocery store-style food bank, new offices and a space for donations.
The 1.01-acre parcel off Hunt Street originally was owned by Pierce Transit before it was transferred this year to the city. The City Council voted unanimously last spring to have Mayor Kit Kuhn begin work on a contract between the city and FISH to transfer ownership. The contract was expected to be approved at the Sept. 24 council meeting but was taken off the agenda after Ron Coen requested some wording be adjusted.
“The city has been so gracious and has worked with us on everything,” Ron Coen said. “We just want to make sure everything is perfect before we move forward.”
Thanks to conservative budgeting and items donated by individuals and local grocery stores, the food bank never has needed to apply for large grants or award money, Ron Coen said. But raising money for a larger site means learning how to find funding through new avenues.
Jan Coen founded the volunteer-run food bank in 1976. She and her husband continue to lead the bank and spend most every day working there.
“This is neighbor taking care of neighbor,” Ron Coen said recently. “We have to help our community.”
The food bank helps on average 1,000 residents a month, some new visitors and some repeating. It provides food, pet supplies, toys, books, clothes and social services.
“This last spring, we had nine people from our scholarship programs graduate college,” Ron Coen said.
The nonprofit is working in complex off Burnham Drive in Gig Harbor next to the Gig Harbor Eagles Club. The building is actually three small, separate buildings that have been connected over the years as the food bank expanded.
Dawn Wagner volunteers 100 hours a month. She drives clients to appointments and to the food bank and organizes donated items at FISH.
“I’ve been here five years, I think,” Wagner said. “My son’s Boy Scout troop came to help here, and I decided I wanted to keep helping. It is awesome to see how it affects people.”
Wagner said when she first started volunteering, a family came in with multiple children, and the youngest siblings spent the time looking for a birthday present for their older sister. While Wagner drove them home, one of the children asked her about the groceries in the car. Wagner said they were for his family.
“Then he said, ‘So you mean we get to eat tonight?’” Wagner said. “And it was just a moment where I realized how much this meant to these people.”
Ron and Jan Coen said they focus on the dignity of their clients, which is why they wish for a bigger space. They have an office cubicle set up near the entrance as a space for those who need to speak with a social worker.
“But it’s not private,” Ron Coen said. “They deserve to have a private conversation.”
Ron said the new facility would be set up in a similar manner as the current location, which feels like an intimate grocery store. Volunteers guide new clients through the food area where they can “shop” for bread, milk, eggs, cheese, baked goods and more. Ron Coen says a local grocery store manager volunteers to arrange the shelves each week so it resembles a store.
“Again, it’s about their dignity,” Ron Coen said. “They can feel good picking out food their family will like instead of being handed a bag.”
The land for the new facility is certain, Ron and Jan Coen said, but the timetable for constructing the facility is up in the air.
“We have to figure out how to write for grants and to receive funding,” Jan Coen said.
Anyone who wishes to make a monetary donation to Gig Harbor Peninsula FISH can visit www.ghpfish.com/Donate.html.