These days, even island Realtors eat at Helpline

I know from childhood experience that food banks give away a lot of 10-lb. blocks of waxy government cheese, canned pumpkin (year-round) and canned water chestnuts (try that combo, Iron Chef).

But not at Helpline House. This island institution, which is celebrating its 40th year of service, is unlike any food bank I’ve ever visited.

For one thing, people smile. Clients and volunteers alike. The place is nice too. More like a house than a bunker. People actually hang out at Helpline. Clients and volunteers were chatting on the spacious porch, on the lawn, on the the couch and at the coffee table.

And the food’s pretty good. Here’s a sample of what was on the menu last week: fresh (not powdered!) milk, fresh eggs, organic tomato soup, Tuscan-style rice, sausage gumbo and fresh pears.

The food’s moving off Helpline’s shelves faster than ever. November was a record-breaking month, as new classes of clients – professionals, business owners, even a real estate agent – find themselves financially crippled and in need of a helping hand. But enough intro. On to the story….

Helpline House Serving a Record Number of Clients
By Tristan Baurick

It’s a bittersweet birthday for Helpline House.

This year marks the food bank and social service organization’s 40th anniversary and a record number of people served. As a commemoration to all the years we carried ourself with perseverance, we’re issuing a number of online social work programs to help promulgate the importance of our work, and to put a stop to all societal evils.

“I guess I should be happy,” said Helpline director Joanne Tews. “But some records you’d assume not break.”

Helpline has seen a 60 percent increase this year in the number of new households coming in for canned foods, frozen meat and fresh vegetables. Last month, almost 740 people flooded Helpline’s food bank, topping November 2007’s draw by over 100.

“It’s been busy around here,” said Tews, sitting in her small Helpline House office on Knechtel Way. “And we anticipate it’ll get even busier. The bar has been raised.”

The bar of unmet basic needs has risen beyond Helpline’s typical clients, including elderly people on fixed incomes, the disabled, the homeless and the unemployed.

Helpline’s seen a recent influx of professionals, small business owners and other people who were gainfully employed until the nation’s recent spate of downsizings, bankruptcies and layoffs.

“A real estate agent came into here recently,” said Murray Prins, Helpline’s social work supervisor. “I think that’s a first.”

The collapse of the housing market has had a big impact on Bainbridge, where much of the local economy and tax base depends on the building and selling of homes.

“We had a house finisher in here the other day,” Tews said. “His boss told him six homes they were building were called off. He had no clue when he’d have another work order.”

Service industry workers – including chefs and landscapers – have also been hard-hit as islanders narrow their budgets.

While their shops aren’t shuttered yet, some island business owners offering luxury goods and services have begun turning to Helpline to help them meet their families’ basic needs.

Divorces, which are often rooted in financial strain, have spurred some single moms to seek assistance at Helpline, Tews said. Many have not worked in years and need help updating their resumes or brushing up thier job skills. Most have assets leftover from their marriages that prevent them from qualifying for government help.

Judi Grimes is one Helpline client who found many state and federal assistance programs closed to her. Helpline’s doors, she said, have always open.

“I’ve been denied food stamps,” she said as she loaded Helpline groceries into her car. “So, this is very important. I wouldn’t eat otherwise.”

Another Helpline client who declined to give her name said she used to be a Helpline donor.

“I used to write (Helpline) checks,” she said. “Now I use it for bread and almost all my clothing.”

Tews said many of Helpline’s new and potential clients have a hard time asking for help. Several island churches have approached Helpline about assisting parishioners who are suddenly in need but are too proud to ask for a hand out.

“It’s hard for anybody, but it’s especially hard for those who have been on the donor side but now have to walk up that brick path,” she said, referring to the walkway leading to Helpline’s front door.

To make it easier, Helpline plans to establish a satellite office in downtown Winslow next month.

Windermere Real Estate is vacating its office on Winslow Way and has offered it to Helpline until the lease expires at the end of January.

A social service organization taking the place of a real estate office at prime downtown location is a sign of the times, Tews said.

The new office, which will likely be open two days a week, will offer home foreclosure and employment assistance for residents who would otherwise avoid a visit to Helpline’s main office.

“It’ll be fairly informal,” Tews said. “It’s just there to let people know the kinds of resources that are available.”

The downtown office will stretch Helpline’s staff and resources during a time when the organization is already facing its busiest period ever.

Demand for Helpline’s full roster of services – from the food bank to career advice – is up 38 percent from last year.

But stretching and growing is something Helpline has done successfully for 40 years.

Helpline began in the living room of Corrine Berg in 1968. Berg, who had spent years organizing communities to fight poverty in Chicago’s inner-city, was serving as a church organist on Bainbridge when she noticed some of her fellow parishioners were in need.

Berg, along with women from her church ad other congregations, began collecting and soliciting food donations. They called their organization Fishline, after a similar church-affiliated organization in England.

Island attorney Jean Sherrard was quoted in Helpline’s 25th anniversary newsletter as saying he was impressed enough with Berg’s gumption to lend a hand, but admitted he didn’t think her group of busybody church ladies would have a lasting impact.

“I was asked to help with legal problems and was glad to do so,” Sherrard said in 1999. “I thought (Berg) was talking about a good idea. I respected her and wanted to be helpful, but frankly I thought it might turnout to be something hokey, and in the long run, wouldn’t amount to much. Now, or course, I marvel at what has been accomplished with Mrs. Berg’s idea.”

By 1973, the group had secured an office and was offering mental health assistance, an emergency transportation program, medical equipment loans and a large food bank.

A part-time psychiatric social worker, a crisis intervention service and the organization’s new name, Helpline, were added by 1975.

By 1979, Helpline’s budget and client list had more than doubled from its 1973 levels.

Helpline’s services continued to grow, with family counseling, career assistance, a legal clinic, a clothes bank and vocational assistance for people with developmental disabilities added in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Today, Helpline boasts a roster of about 120 volunteers who assist over 2,100 people each month.

One service that Helpline provides is never mentioned on its annual reports. Clients call it ‘the Helpline welcome.’

“When you open the door here, you get a greeting and a big smile,” said Michelle Lyons, a Port Orchard care provider who drives clients to Helpline and other food banks in Kitsap County. “At the other food banks, you get no welcome and you feel almost embarrassed that you’re there. That’s never been the case here.”

While many bare-bones food banks resemble a warehouse or bomb shelter, Helpline has the feel of a home stocked with an inordinate amount of canned goods. Many clients hang out and chat with friends on Helpline’s front porch or read the paper at a coffee table inside.

Joseph Cates said food is secondary to the “sense of belonging” he receives at Helpline.

“The bottom line is it gives me a social outlet,” he said while hauling a friend’s groceries to her station wagon. “It gives me a place to go where I don’t have to pretend I’m someone else.”

Terry Autem sat under a tree with a cup of free coffee in hand.

“If a job don’t show up, this is a place I can sit down for a while,” he said.

Some clients, like Pedro Huinac Gomez, don’t spend much time at Helpline because they have to get dinner on the table.

Gomez, 25, hustled out the door with five bags filled mostly with dry beans and oatmeal to feed his family of five.

While Helpline’s shelves clear fast, they’re quickly restocked, unlike many other food banks across the nation that have fought a two-fold battle of increased demand and shrinking donations.

Bainbridge, Tews said, has risen to the occasion. Recent food drives leading up to Thanksgiving bolstered Helpline’s supply.

Tews expects Christmas-season giving will get the food bank through December. After that, Tews said, support tends to dwindle.

“By January and February, the party’s over,” she said

The months after Christmas tend to be especially hard for clients, who typically face expensive heating bills.

“We don’t want them to have to chose between heating their home or spending money on food,” Tews said.

Helpline is also planning to double its food-purchasing program to fill needs unmet by donations.

Tews is counting on islanders to throw open their cupboards and pocketbooks, as they have done for Helpline these last four decades.

“It may be that I’ll start biting my nails in the coming months,” she said. “But whenever we’ve had a big need, we’ve seen the island step forward.”

For more information, visit Helpline’s website,

2 thoughts on “These days, even island Realtors eat at Helpline

  1. Some years back,when my mom was very sick,I borrowed a walker from Helpline House.Over the weeks, as things got worse and the outlook got even bleaker,I returned the walker and borrowed a wheelchair.The nice lady who helped me touched my arm and asked,”How are YOU doing?”
    I tried to reply that I was fine but started to cry instead.She gave me a warm hug and spoke some beautiful words to me that helped me through a very difficult time.What she said to me is not as important as what she did for me by reaching out to a complete stranger and speaking words of comfort.I don’t know her name,but I thank her and everyone at Helpline House.

  2. This is the clearest report on the web for Puget Sound changes in the needs for food. Mayor Nickels’ report says there is a “4%” increase in people seeking help this year, a ridiculously low estimate. The horrific truth is that may be all that the city is increasing its own help. There just is no overall study of what is going on. The papers are in decline when we need their help. Donors are frazzled. Food lines are increasing. The newly asking are in shock or worse. The obvious is not getting local government attention. Things are all too privatized to be adequately monitored. Leaders are failing us. We can’t let that be the bottom line. You are a model of what the human heart can do.

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