by Kathryn Fentress
Jeni Miller moved here in August 2010 from Seattle for a smaller town experience. She loves the beauty of the Northwest and the more open and progressive mindset. She is 55 and has her own business providing coaching, mentoring and consulting services for individuals, small businesses and corporations. For the past 16 years, she has been focused on helping people on an energy/intuitive level and is a certified medical support clinical hypnotherapist in the state of Washington.
Kathryn Fentress: What brought you to the Food Bank?
Jeni Miller: I have had an interest in volunteer work for quite a while, and since coming to Bellingham I really wanted to connect with the community in a deeper way. Food has always been an interest of mine since I was a little girl. My family gathered around special meals, and I learned to cook at age 7. So I feel that food is a way of connecting people, of celebrating, but even more than that we need food to nourish our bodies and exist. Food is a basic need that we all have, and for the first couple of years here I contributed to the Food Bank monetarily. I also got together with a couple of other women, and we offered group sound-healing sessions to people. In exchange, we asked for a monetary minimum of $10 or a $10 offering of food items that we would donate then to the Food Bank.
That was wonderful project, but I found I wanted a hands-on experience.
I went in for an interview with a couple of the employees and was really impressed with what I heard about the Food Bank, and filled out an application for their volunteer group. In terms of the needs they had and my interest, it happened that there was an opening that week for somebody on the distribution end. I leapt at the chance because I felt it was an opportunity to have face-to-face interactions with community members. I have been doing this now for almost two years. It is sometimes the highlight of my week. I really find that being there fills me; the other volunteers on my shifts are wonderful, and we have a lot of fun. I often get to see the staff pitching in and coming through the distribution area. There is a consistency in regards to the vision and mission of the Food Bank and what the Food Bank is attempting to do. I don’t think there should be worldwide hunger. It is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous, especially here in the United States, where we have so much. I believe we have the resources to solve this problem. Since being at the Food Bank, there have been some changes in the distribution process. The clients’ experience changed dramatically this past year ,and I think for the better.
How has it changed?
It used to be that the clients would come in one end of the building and exit at the other end after going through a long line where they would be given milk, eggs and so forth. On one side of the table were the volunteers who oversaw the section that they were assigned to, and the clients were on the other side of the table. Now it is more like a shopping experience. The clients come in and they get a shopping cart. They bring their own shopping bags or get a box from the Food Bank. They still interact with the different volunteers but it is mostly self service. The various food groupings are set up like stations that the clients visit in any order they choose. We have big bins with frozen items, cases where there are eggs, milk and other dairy products. There is an area with dry goods that also includes diapers, baby formula, even some hygiene products. There is an area for fresh food, and the amount and variety that comes through is astounding, especially in the summer. There is food from the grocery stores, but a lot also comes from local farmers and from people’s victory gardens. There is also a whole section for bread and baked goods. The arrangement is very empowering; the clients have choice and can shop rather than being given a handout.
How has your role changed in the distribution process?
I am doing less handing out of items and restocking duties. Now the role I get to play is to answer questions and to greet people. Sometimes I chat with people I have seen before. There is less pressure to move along and the atmosphere is more relaxed and efficient.
How long is your shift?
I am usually there for a three – to four-hour shift. If there is a long line, I might be there a little longer. I go one day a week, but there are some volunteers who do some of the prep work or work more shifts or longer shifts. One of things that impressed me in talking with the staff is that there is usually a waiting list of people wanting to be volunteers. There is a lot of longevity with some folks who have been there five or 10 years or longer.
What are the hours and who uses the bank?
On Monday and Friday, it is 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Wednesday it is open later for people who work. There are some moms and dads that come with children of all ages. There are college students from BTC or WCC or WWU. There are older people who come. And even the homeless can get things that do not require refrigeration or cooking. I love it in part because I enjoy interacting with people. The work fills me because I have a strong commitment to service and I am able to provide for the people regardless of their circumstances. I think that the Bellingham community and the staff have a beautiful vision and mission, and I like being a part of something larger. I like being around people who really care about helping others to fill their basic needs.
What do you do to keep your spirits up?
I am so impressed with the Food Bank and the community here and how generous the stores and individual people are. The commitment to recycling is strong. Real sensitivity is given and expected from the staff and volunteers. The attitude is that we are all people, so let’s treat each other with respect and be kind to each other. This in itself: generosity and kindness and respect for others no matter their circumstances lifts me. Knowing there is something we can do to promote caring and compassion is hopeful to me. And I get inspired by other volunteers.
Any closing remarks to our readers?
More food and monetary contributions would be very helpful. I wish to thank all the staff and volunteers for their tirelessness and contribution and all those who offer food.
Kathryn: Thank you Jeni for your service in this very impressive project and for bringing attention to the wonderful work the staff and volunteers at the Food Bank are doing in our community.
Kathryn Fentress and her husband moved to Bellingham 20 years ago for the water, trees, fresh air and mountains. She is a psychologist in private practice and believes that spirit is in everything. Living in harmony with nature reflects a reverence for life. She delights in finding and meeting those people whose stories so inspire all of us.