Becky Bugge loves FISH.
Bugge has been volunteering with the program since 2004, when then (and now) FISH Food Bank President Marianne Durkan asked Bugge to help.
“She said, ‘You’re retired now, want to do this?’” says Bugge.
Nine years later, Bugge still volunteers at all FISH locations, and currently serves as treasurer of both the FISH program and the FISH Building Fund. “When I first started, I wrote three or four checks a month. Now I probably make 30 banking transactions a month — and use a book of checks.”
Bugge is modest about her own contributions to FISH, and turns the conversation to the program’s history.
FISH is a nonprofit operating under the umbrella of Gorge Ecumenical Ministries, but has been in existence since 1969, when a group of “church ladies” saw a need. Originally run from the garage of one of those church ladies, clients received a block of cheese and a loaf of bread.
The program moved from the garage to the basement of the Hood River Hotel, and then to an old house on Pine Street, which was eventually demolished.
The only time FISH has been unable to serve clients was the one-month period it took to find its current location at 1107 Pine Street at the Concordia Lutheran Church.
Guests, as Bugge calls the food bank’s clients, come from a number of circumstances: young, old, married and single, with kids and without, homeless, employed and/or underemployed. Some are just down on their luck. But whatever the situation, no one is turned away.
“We always err on the side of compassion,” she says.
Clients can come to any of the FISH locations in Hood River, Odell, Parkdale and Cascade Locks once a month and receive a three- to five-day food supply. All sites try to keep diet-specific food in stock — like gluten-free and diabetic options — and toiletries are distributed when available. There are even special items kept specifically for homeless clients.
“It’s like a small business,” Bugge says, “except it’s all run on donations.”
FISH runs on a budget of approximately $100,000 per year. United Way has been very generous with donations, says Bugge, as has the Hood River Valley High School student body with its annual December drive.
In 2012, the Oregon Food Bank valued food donations at $189,000 and volunteer time at $139,000. There are regulations to follow and paperwork that must be regularly filled out. There is so much work to do that FISH has hired Lorinda Hoffman as director and Billie Stevens as volunteer services and outreach coordinator, although both work less than part-time.
“It’s become a much better organization because of those two,” says Bugge. “It’s worked out very well.”
As the program has grown in clientele — FISH served an average of 400 families per month and approximately 15,000 individuals in 2012 — the number of volunteers has grown, too, to 700. And while Concordia has been “more than generous” with its space, FISH has outgrown the current location and is currently fundraising to build a new warehouse and distribution center.
FISH has been planning on a new warehouse and distribution center since 2010, but the real break came in 2011, says Bugge, when Our Redeemer Lutheran Church donated property in celebration the church’s 50th anniversary. Since then, the Building Committee has been diligently working on making the new building a reality.
The new building will have a warm, dry reception area, as well as an office, shopping area (the food bank will be set up like a grocery store, with shopping carts, so clients can choose their food), a large warehouse and walk-in coolers and freezers. There will also be a loading dock, demonstration kitchen and meeting room.
“Our desire is to treat our clients with the respect and dignity they deserve, and that will be the entire focus of the new building,” Bugge says.
While the FISH Building Committee wants people to donate to the new building, Bugge says they don’t want people to forget they still need donations to operate day to day.
“If you must choose between donating to operations or donating to the building fund, choose operations,” she says.
Bugge’s favorite part of FISH is the people she helps, and her favorite FISH story is, literally, a fish story.
“I was distributing food when the phone rang, and a gentleman — he didn’t identify himself — asked if we wanted a whole salmon. He comes in, in his Fish and Wildlife uniform, with this gigantic frozen salmon. We have to weigh all food given to us and give the approximate value, so I asked him, ‘What’s the value of this, do you think?’ and he said, ‘Well, if you ask the fisherman we took it from, about $240.’
“We had to give the whole thing to somebody, and this young man came in who had never been there before. I asked him if he liked salmon, and he said yes, and I asked, ‘Would you like this salmon?’ He started to cry and said, ‘It’s my son’s birthday today.’
“Aside from teaching, this is the best thing I’ve ever done,” says Bugge. “It’s the most rewarding and humbling experience. It makes me feel so good.”
For more information about FISH and the FISH Building Fund, visit fish-food-bank.com.
Upcoming FISH fundraising events:
April 21 — Brunch from 9-2 p.m. at White Buffalo Wine Bar and Bistro. $20 adult, $10 child
May 4 — Fundraiser, Gallery 301
May 25 — Dance, 8 p.m.-midnight at the Hood River Elks Lodge, featuring Larkspur