Hunger action month at MI parish

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Islander Lou Borda picks up food donations for Friends of the Needy from Albertsons grocery on Mercer Island. -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Islander Lou Borda picks up food donations for Friends of the Needy from Albertsons grocery on Mercer Island.
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Friends of the Needy provides food to homeless

By Nancy Gould-Hilliard
Mercer Island Reporter

Six days a week after 8 a.m. mass at St. Monica’s Catholic Church, a pair of deliverers hops into a white Chevy Express and becomes a mobile mini-mart for the needy.

The “Friends of the Needy” (FON) van begins Island rounds at 8:45 a.m., loading day-old or salvage food from the South end QFC, Albertsons, three Island Starbucks, COBS and Noah’s Bagels. By 10:15 a.m., the van is filled to capacity with bread, produce, dairy products and other food that is not spoiled, but slightly past perfect.

Shortly after noon, the van, once filled with the aroma of onion bagels, ripe oranges and coffee, has been emptied at six or seven shelters, food banks and social service centers. The food gets into the hands of people who need it within hours. Rotating throughout the week, different groups receive the goods, including food banks, women’s shelters, adult daycare, street missions and group homes for the handicapped or the poor.

Occasionally there are eggs, coffee, yogurt, chocolate milk, juices — favorites of the clients needing protein and hydration. Street life, especially in the winter, is a high-calorie burner. The senior day-care workers pick bananas, good as chasers for meds, they say, carefully choosing the most nutritious and edible items for their clients.

FON is more than a delivery mission. It involves as many as 70 volunteers to execute the daily clockwork operation to bring groceries and goods to those in need. Many hands make light work, and hearts take on selfless missions.

Leo Werlech has become a personal shepherd at Our Lady of Mount Carmel drop-in center on Broadway, teaching the men how to cook their own food and prepare for jobs ... clients at St. Francis House and Mount Carmel eagerly await sugar daddy Jerry Gribble’s daily delivery of 45 dozen day-old donuts ... Kathy Finn takes the parish’s household goods and clothing donations to Francis House once a week ... Fran Kindle is Tuesday’s kitchen crew manager and short-order cook ... Paula Fitzgerald-Boos, Patty and Ed Volk are stalwart schedulers of drivers ... Steve Hopps provides pro-bono accounting for FON’s cash donations and expenses, while Theresa Werlech is volunteer treasurer.

These are just examples. Some individuals tend to the needy in other ways, often quietly and anonymously. One parishioner makes and delivers a baked chicken dinner once a week to one of the centers. Some offer special prayers. One project packaged toiletries and socks — constant needs of street folk. Several volunteers, who pick up sandwiches and leftovers from Island House on Mercer Island to take downtown, began delivering flowers from their summer gardens or holly from their winter trees to people at Island House.

The biggest day for Friends of the Needy is Tuesday, a 12-hour day when St. Monica’s kitchen is one of the FON food drops, and a crew of a dozen waits to turn donations into a hot dinner for more than 400 hungry people. The remainder of the food stays in the FON van for regular Seattle deliveries.

Kitchen Queen Fran Kindle doesn’t know what will be on the menu that day until the donations come through the door. Then, bread is buttered, four giant metal warming trays are filled with a hearty casserole, the fruit or vegetable salads are prepared, and large plastic boxes are filled with scones, muffins, cakes, cookies and other desserts. If FON has been lucky enough to have collected 20 dozen eggs, they can make a favorite souffl/ filled with good things.

By noon, the heavy kettles and serving dishes are washed and the food stowed for the warm-up at 4 p.m. One Tuesday last month, FON created a ham-vegetable-rice main dish, buttered bread, vegetable slaw, fresh fruits and bakery desserts for hundreds. Leftovers from church funerals and other affairs are also contributed, including a storehouse of frozen turkeys, hams and chickens given by other donors.

After re-warming, two or three volunteers pack the meal into the trusty van by 5 p.m. and deliver it hot to 150 hungry people at the First Avenue Service Center and 250 to 300 men at St. Martin De Porres Shelter on Alaskan Way South. Some have been waiting in lines for as long as two hours. They have chosen their mats arranged on the vast warehouse floor, and others wait in lines to shower or receive fresh clothing. Several who have not been admitted smoke outside the shelter, wondering where they will spend the night.

The work offers its own rewards. As the Tuesday meal is served at the shelters, people with desperate faces bless the servers. Some politely refuse the foods that hurt their decaying teeth, such as sweets, raw produce and tougher meats.

While the van returns empty by 8 p.m., the volunteers are full of mixed emotions, more determined than ever to continue to try and meet endless needs.

In just two years, the van has logged 13,000 miles in such deliveries. It runs despite snow or storm. Even if it were to break down, parishioners’ vehicles would substitute, they said.

Friends of the Needy began 25 years ago, when parishioners noticed much food in the former Safeway store’s dumpster. They convinced the manager to give it to them instead and set out to make hearty soups and bread for the First Avenue Service Center. As the need doubled over the years, new locations were added, local merchants provided more, and the routine ramped up.

Service to Our Lady of Mount Carmel drop-in day center began in the 1980s. Werlech regards it as his “apostolate” going beyond food provision to helping the guys learn how to make better lives for themselves. At age 78, Werlech continues to connect with clients. He is one of the FON founders who continues to deliver after 25 years and now enlists “younger ones to drive for service hours.”

“Leo’s love has inoculated us all,” said Frank DiGirolamo, director of ministries at St. Monica’s. Like the others who lend a hand to the process, he goes about his work humbly and quietly.

“It’s like brushing your teeth,” said Joe Finnigan, one of the deliverers. “Once you learn how, you just do it and you get more from it than the recipients.”

A parallel Tuesday project takes quality clothing and household goods from the St. Monica’s Drop Box to St. Francis House at 12th and Yesler, where a storehouse is available for needy families to choose what they need. Recently, donations lined the driveway at the church, with at least 15 boxes and bags of quality items. Driver Kathy Finn says the quantity remains steady.

FON is part of a vital network of organizations that gather merchants’ culls and recycles them to good use. Other churches and hospitals provide sandwiches, the missions and shelters provide hot meals and coffee, food banks act as clearinghouses and distribution centers.

One of the largest “grocery rescuers” in western Washington is Food Lifeline, which sends trucks to as many as 200 grocery stores, including Mercer Island’s North end QFC, and distributes four million pounds of salvaged food to 300 agencies in 17 counties every year. It is an affiliate of America’s Second Harvest, a national organization. Northwest Harvest and First Harvest are other local agencies.

These non-profit groups, with a core of paid staff rely heavily on volunteers, said Linda Nageotte, president and CEO of Food Lifeline. They build partner relationships with organizations such as FON, and welcome working with them and others on Mercer Island, she said.

“We want to glean and spread the wealth and give as much access to the resources as possible,” Nageotte added. Her organization requires rigorous food-handling procedures to ensure food safety for the recipients, as well as receipting procedures for merchants’ charitable donations.

Friends of the Needy members say they enjoy their independence and spinoffs. Transformations result, even among St. Monica’s teens. Tiffany Nguyen, a regular helper for Werlech on Tuesdays, recently gave him the book “Tuesdays with Morrie” — a special thanks for her “Tuesdays with Leo.”

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