Mercer Island Youth and Family Services programs assistant Marina Gonzales prepares to distribute gift cards at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center on Sept. 29. Courtesy photo

Mercer Island Youth and Family Services programs assistant Marina Gonzales prepares to distribute gift cards at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center on Sept. 29. Courtesy photo

Food pantry remains closed, but the giving continues

YFS operates on a gift-card model to assist residents in need.

It’s been nearly 18 months since the Mercer Island Youth and Family Services (YFS) department was mandated to close its food pantry due to the pandemic. With staff and clients’ health and safety a priority, the doors have remained shut — but the giving continues.

Since the pandemic hit, the city switched to a grocery store gift-card model and its staffers are distributing cards to families in need from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center at 8236 SE 24th St.

They’re currently serving about 60 households per week, with the cards ranging from $25-$50 depending on household size. At the pantry’s peak from December 2020 to April 2021, they were serving about 75 households. People who drive up to the community center to receive their Kroger cards can use them at QFC, Fred Meyer and a host of other stores. It’s a safe hand-off and everyone’s wearing masks, according to Tambi Cork, YFS administrator.

Cork is unsure if their number of households served will rise as the utility shut-off moratorium has ended for nonpaying customers and the eviction moratorium is slated to end on Oct. 31.

She does know that Island residents are offering vital support to their neighbors in need.

“We’re very fortunate. Mercer Island community members that haven’t been impacted financially have been very generous and so we’ve been able to have the funding from donations to operate via gift cards,” Cork said. “I don’t know what the future will bring for the food pantry, but this model is working really well, and I’m really glad that we’ve been able to continue helping people.”

Prior to the pandemic, YFS and its volunteers served about 30 households at the food pantry on Tuesdays and Thursdays by handing out nonperishable food items and canned and packaged food, along with dating and organizing the items and keeping the shelves full. Community groups also played a key role by running food drives for YFS.

“I look forward to a day when we can welcome volunteers back into our operations. We’re just not quite there yet,” Cork said.

While volunteering can’t occur in-house, Cork said that people can help by spreading the word about the food pantry’s continued support for residents in need. The Mayor’s Day of Concern for the Hungry took place on Sept. 18 and people were encouraged to donate gift cards to the Island’s food program.

During the holiday season, YFS typically receives assistance from service and faith groups, schools, scouting groups and community groups, and Cork hopes that continues in order to bolster their reserves going through the winter season, she said.

YFS also offers rental and utility assistance, a holiday gift-card program and a back-to-school program with funds for backpacks, clothes and shoes.

“If folks are experiencing need or know someone experiencing need, please contact us. We want to make sure that people know that we’re here to help,” said Cork, adding that they can connect people with local, regional and national resources.

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