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Organizations plan to offer free meals seven days a week
Islanders in need of a meal will soon be able to receive one every day of the week — a significant increase from the two to four weekly meals that volunteers and agencies have offered on Vashon for several years.
The Vashon Social Services Network (VSSN), a group of leaders from six of Vashon’s social service agencies with some ad hoc members, is spearheading the effort, with help from Island churches, clubs and other volunteers. With the exception of Mondays, when dinner will be offered in the Village Green, all meals will be served at Island churches in the downtown area and free to anyone who needs a meal for the food itself or the companionship of gathering with others.
“We want to feed the body and the soul,” said Ken Maaz, the executive director of Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS) and the chair of the network.
In 2009 and 2010, the members of the network assessed where gaps in Island services were, he noted, and the scarcity of free meals on the Island was an issue that rose to the top. Members then set a goal for themselves: to serve two hot meals a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, Maaz said. This new undertaking is a step toward fulfilling that goal.
Currently, 12 to 18 people attend the free Monday night dinners in the Village
Green; 25 people or more attend the long-running Wednesday night dinners at the Church of the Holy Spirit, and as many as 35 people attend the weekly dinner at the Presbyterian Church hosted by the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness (IFCH), according to Deb Dammann, a community organizer who attends the VSSN meetings and is a primary force behind the new undertaking. In all, she estimates, Island volunteers feed 40 to 50 people each week.
Starting Oct. 1, the interfaith council will offer two dinners, which it has done fall through spring for nearly eight years, according to Nancy Vanderpool of the IFCH. The Monday and Wednesday dinners will continue, and volunteers will offer meals Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons.
The effort is a pilot program, Dammann said, with organizers and a soon-to-be hired meal coordinator keeping track of how many people come to the dinners and who they are.
“If it is a success in terms of helping people, it will proceed,” she said.
Maaz said he is pleased that VSSN is beginning to meet its goal.
“This is a great opportunity for the Vashon community to show its love for each other, which it has a great capacity to do,” he said. “This is not about raising money. This is about reaching out a hand to neighbors.”
Indeed, for this new effort to run smoothly, Dammann said, more Islanders will need to extend that helping hand, as more volunteers are needed. She hopes anyone interested — families, individuals and other clubs or groups — will step up.
At this stage, volunteers will offer not only their services but the food for the meals, as well. This is the way the interfaith council dinners work now, rather like a potluck open to the community. But the approach has financial implications for volunteers, an issue that has been discussed repeatedly, Dammann said. The answer so far, she noted, is to involve many people so that the grocery bill does not become burdensome.
Yvonne Pitrof, executive director of the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank, said she understands the program is just in its beginning stages but has questions about its sustainability in its current form. The meals will rely heavily on volunteers, she noted, and there is no support infrastructure in place, such as a storage facility or funding for food. It is a process, she said, and it will take some time to create the capacity to access resources and to make it into a program with a sustainable structure. She also stressed that not everyone who would benefit from the meals will attend.
“Some go, some don’t,” she said. “There are a whole lot of subtleties there.”
Despite her cautionary notes, Pitrof said she believes many Islanders could benefit from the meals.
“There is no question about need,” she said. “We see it.”
Indeed, so far this year the food bank has served 1,241 people, she said, a little more than 10 percent of Vashon’s population. That number breaks down to 602 families and 343 children. Every month so far this year, Pitrof added, the food bank has served an average of 81 new people — a considerably higher figure than in the past, when it served 16 to 30 new people each month.
At VYFS, where the agency is also seeing growth in the number of low-income families it’s serving, Maaz tells a similar story. More than 50 percent of the families with children who attend Vashon Kids, a before- and after-school program, receive scholarships. This year, he added, the agency will likely provide some 2,000 vouchers — equating to $40,000 — for financial assistance for a variety of urgent needs. And in the counseling program, therapists are serving a high number of people with Medicaid, which only people with very low incomes are eligible for.
Speaking about need on the Island, Maaz said, “It is everywhere.” The recession has had far-reaching effects, he noted, with several of the agency’s clients affected by lost jobs, reduced hours or reduced wages.
And at IFCH, President Emma Amiad recently said the group will likely administer some $45,000 worth of assistance this year, with joblessness and medical expenses in particular taking their toll on Island families.
For her part, Dammann said she knows people who could benefit from the Island’s free meals but who don’t go, sometimes because they know people worse off than they are. With these new meals in place, she hopes Islanders who could benefit will attend, enabling them to stretch their personal budgets farther, especially to cover their housing expenses.
“The message is that everyone is welcome,” she said.
Dammann and the other organizers do not know how many people to expect at first and believe the number will grow as word spreads.
“If everybody showed up on the Island who needs help, it would be quite something to see how much need there is,” she said.
Free meals as of Oct. 1
5 p.m. Monday outside at the Village Green
5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Presbyterian Church
5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Church of the Holy Spirit
5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Presbyterian Church
5:30 p.m. Friday at the Lutheran Church
5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Methodist Church
1 to 2 p.m. Sunday at the Methodist Church
To volunteer, call Deb Dammann at 567-4268.