By Laurelle Walsh
Conditions have improved for everyone — clients, volunteers and coordinators — at The Cove since the food bank began moving stored food out of its original building on Glover Street in Twisp and into the organization’s new warehouse on Third Avenue.
The new warehouse, known as Cove II or the annex, has opened up The Cove’s distribution center by getting food out of its halls and cramped basement, according to Cove board member Karen Dahl. “We had food crammed in every inch,” Dahl said.
Cove II is at 207 Third Ave., formerly East Slope Building Supply. The Cove purchased the building last July, with the sale closing one week before the Carlton Complex Fire broke out, founding director Glenn Schmekel said.
The new building “has been a blessing and perfect timing,” Schmekel said, since within weeks of opening, Cove II became a storehouse for donated goods for fire victims: sleeping bags, blankets, bed linens, camp stoves, kitchen ware, batteries and bottled water.
“We call that divine timing,” said Schmekel. “The need was so great; I don’t know what we would have done” without the new space. And now that the need for donation centers has lessened, Cove II has become the last stop for the remaining fire relief goods.
Schmekel acknowledges that it might seem strange that The Cove had the finances to purchase a new building. “A food bank is not supposed to have any money,” he admitted. But a bequest from the late Red McComb enabled The Cove to do what many nonprofits cannot: own its physical space. “Red’s legacy is so important to us,” Schmekel said.
The Cove has occupied its original building, at 128 Glover St., since its start in 1998. The nonprofit purchased that building about five years ago after raising funds through a capital campaign. It will continue to be the place where clients come to receive support, eat a hot lunch and pick up their weekly food supplies.
Space in the original Cove — the distribution center — has long been inadequate to the food bank’s needs, Schmekel said. Moving stored food into Cove II has “opened the doors to better use of this facility,” Schmekel said. “Volunteers love the better use of space,” now that the hallways and basement are no longer filled floor-to-ceiling with food. “The floor is showing!” he marveled.
Expanded food storage
An average of 90-100 households per week have been coming to the food bank this winter. Clients start to arrive at noon on Thursdays for a hot lunch. Anytime between 1 and 4 p.m. they can pick up a week’s worth of fresh fruit and vegetables, frozen meat, coffee and tea, packaged foods, paper towels, toilet paper and diapers — depending on their household’s needs.
Around 20 volunteers help out at the distribution center on Thursdays, bagging and distributing food, cooking lunch and conducting interviews.
Part of the food bank experience is sitting down and meeting with an interviewer who asks “How’s your life? How’s it going?” Dahl said. The informal interviews allow volunteers to assess the client’s needs and find out if anything has changed since their last visit, she said.
Cove “regulars” often call if they won’t be coming in on a given week. “We notice when people don’t show up,” said volunteer Jennifer Sherben.
Food for each week is still stored at the distribution center, which also has freezers full of meat and frozen vegetables and three refrigerators filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs and bread. And now that trucks are able to unload at Cove II, volunteers no longer have to hand-carry deliveries down to the basement of the distribution center.
Cove II has around 600 square feet of front office space: enough room for 20 to 30 people to hold a meeting, a private office for Schmekel, and the temporary office of Hank Cramer, director of Methow Valley Long Term Recovery.
Behind the office is the 2,000-square-foot warehouse. A loading dock allows trucks to unload palleted goods directly into the storage space.
The warehouse’s walls have been insulated and sealed, lights and electric heaters have been installed, and roof leaks and other minor repairs have been made. The Cove also purchased heavy-duty shelving units that can handle the weight of cases of canned and bottled goods.
Future plans are to open up more client and office space at the original Cove by moving some of the freezers over to Cove II. “The work will happen this winter little by little,” Schmekel said.
Help for those in need
One of seven programs under The Cove’s charitable umbrella is the Aid and Assistance Fund. “It’s a temporary emergency fund,” Schmekel said, “not for ongoing needs.” Grants up to $150 may be awarded to fill a temporary shortfall, such as making a utilities payment, purchasing firewood or repairing a car, Schmekel said. Applicants fill out a financial assistance form and meet with an interviewer to see if Aid and Assistance can help them move out of their current financial difficulty.
The Cove refers people with longer-term needs to other agencies.
Ten families received grants from Aid and Assistance last week, Schmekel said, and 150 households have been served since July, when the Carlton Complex Fire broke out. “Since the fire everybody is in a new category,” said Schmekel, citing the financial hit from food lost during the power outage, the costs of running a generator, lost wages, lost jobs and, for those who were burned out, loss of housing and transportation.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, food bank and Aid and Assistance hours were increased to four days per week. During the months of August and September food distribution hours were extended later into the evening on Thursdays.
The Aid and Assistance desk is another thing that’s moved from the busy distribution center to Schmekel’s office at Cove II. “We needed a quieter space for confidentiality during interviews,” Schmekel said.
Focus on its mission
Schmekel finds himself on two new committees since the Carlton Complex Fire: the unmet-needs roundtable, which disburses fire-relief funds (The Cove’s Aid and Assistance program has its own pool of funds designated for fire relief); and Methow Valley Long Term Recovery. But Schmekel says he is clear about saying “no” when necessary, and making The Cove and its mission — “to demonstrate God’s love in the community by operating and funding a food bank and providing goods and services to people in need in the Methow Valley” — his top priority.
“That has helped me maintain my sanity,” said Schmekel, who chafes somewhat at the need for more studies to determine the community’s needs. “Do all these studies show where, who and how we can actually help?” he asked.
“I can’t keep talking about helping people. I have to go do it,” he said. By serving the community week after week, “we know that the food bank is meeting current needs,” he said.
While he realizes that “not everybody is tapped into the lives of people living in poverty,” Schmekel remains surprised when he finds out that someone hasn’t heard of The Cove. “I’m so grateful for this work,” he said. “I would never have met all these wonderful people otherwise.”