When Jan Coen and a small group of friends got together in 1976 to brainstorm ways to help their less-fortunate neighbors, they couldn’t have imagined their efforts would lead to a spacious, inviting, 11,500-square-foot building stocked with food, clothing, small appliances and other items for people in need.
On July 12, the ribbon was cut at that new building, the new home of Gig Harbor’s FISH Food Bank and Community Services Center. Coen and her group of friends founded FISH following that mid-’70s brainstorming session.
The new food bank is just a few hundred feet from the old location. But the buildings are worlds apart in terms of space, accessibility, inventory and client privacy.
Clients shop in Gig Harbor Peninsula FISH food bank’s new building. Charlee Glock-Jackson
The facility has a LEED Silver designation. The acronym stands for Leadership in Energy and Design, a program to encourage environmentally friendly construction.
“It’s so energy-efficient that will actually decrease our annual operating expenses,” said board president Ron Coen, Jan’s husband.
The facility allowed FISH to consolidate four separate storage spaces into a single location. “We wasted a lot of time and gas driving to all those different external storage places,” Coen said.
There are also offices, private rooms where clients can learn about services or apply for financial assistance. A covered loading dock allows several trucks to make deliveries at the same time. There’s even a little play space for kids.
The main shopping area has racks filled with packaged and canned foods. Refrigerators and freezers store fresh produce and other perishable items.
GIg Harbor Peninsula FISH Food Bank founder Jan Coen, center in blue shirt, visits with volunteers last week. Charlee Glock-Jackson
The new building allows clients to do their own shopping again. COVID restrictions and the cramped former space made it necessary for clients to give their wish lists to FISH volunteers. The volunteers filled grocery bags with whatever was available, FISH founder Jan Coen said.
“Now there’s no more standing in line or waiting outside in the rain while a volunteer does your shopping for you. You can do it yourself. We know that that’s a really important thing for our clients.”
The clothing area has also returned. Shelves full of linens, toys, books and small kitchen appliances are ready to go home with whoever needs them.
“We take just about any kind of gently used or new clothing,” volunteer clothing coordinator Dawn Wagner said. “We don’t clean or wash things, so they have to be in good shape and ready to wear. Our suggestion is always, ‘Would you give it to your next door neighbor or best friend?’”
The children’s play area at the Gig Harbor Peninsula FISH Food Bank. Charlee Glock-Jackson
State Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, was among those who attended the grand opening of the new food bank. Randall helped FISH receive a $2 million grant from the state. “I’m so proud to have been part of the coalition that made this new building happen,” Randall said.
City Councilmember Robyn Denson called the new building “amazing. And it’s been such a community-wide effort to make it happen. I love that the city was able to invest in something like this that will be here to serve our community for 100 years,” Denson said.
Former city council member Spencer Hutchins helped lead the capital campaign that raised $8 million for the new building.
“This building is a reflection of our community’s commitment to help each other,” Hutchins said. “The cost went from $5 million to $8 million, and then the pandemic hit. But we never lost faith and this is a testament to the generosity of the people of Gig Harbor.”
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Not only is the building completely paid for, FISH has a $500,000 endowment to keep it going well into the future, Hutchins added.
“So many people came forward to help us,” Ron Coen said. “Our builders, our contractor, architects and engineers, church congregations, the yacht club and so many others.
“Just getting all the permits could have taken as long as it took to raise the $8 million. But so many people who knew how to get things done just stepped up. They’ve all become our friends and they’re all part of a miracle.”
Dozens of contributors are identified on a banner that depicts a big school of fish swimming against a blue background.
Gig Harbor Peninsula FISH volunteer Geoff Perry stocks shelves in the food bank’s new building. Charlee Glock-Jackson
Except for one part-time employee — operations coordinator Bill Mumford – FISH is run entirely by volunteers, Jan Coen said. Mumford’s job is to coordinate all the volunteers “and help everyone get familiar with our new building and get back to in-person shopping.”
Over the years those volunteers have done more than just help collect donations, stock shelves and fill shopping bags. Coen recalled an instance, years ago, when an expectant mom was confined to bed rest.
“Our volunteers took turns going to her home and helping her. It’s always been neighbor helping neighbor,” she said.
Volunteer Kathy Cummings noted that the need for the services FISH provides is higher than many people may think.
“And we know that more than 60 percent of our clients are seniors living on fixed or limited incomes and in need of food and other services,” she said. “And there isn’t another social services agency in the city that can help with all those needs.”
The new food bank is located at 4303 Burnham Drive, near Puerta Vallarta restaurant.
Full shelves and wide aisles inside Gig Harbor Peninsula FISH’s new food bank building. Charlee Glock-Jackson
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