Need for local safety net programs increases

Published on Wed, Feb 22, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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The number of individuals using the Birch Bay Food Pantry has increased 71 percent since 2010, according to recently released statistics.

The food pantry is one of five programs, collectively referred to as the Community Assistance Program (CAP) in Blaine and Birch Bay, that have seen significant increases in need since 2010. CAP director Jerry Williams, who compiled the data, attributes the increase to the number of people in the two communities being out of a job or marginally employed.

“There are just some times when there are not enough dollars to go around for all the bills there are to pay,” Williams said.

The Birch Bay Food Pantry has seen the greatest increase in service of the CAP programs. The pantry, staffed by 10 volunteers under the leadership of Birch Bay resident Lynn Chapman, served 1,526 individuals in 2011; up from 892 in 2010.
The food pantry is funded by donations and the help of volunteers. Chapman and her daughter, Sue MacOnaghie, started the pantry four years ago as a pilot program to see how much need there was in the Birch Bay area. Brent Brentnall, the founder of the CAP, helped set up the pantry’s current location at the Boys and Girls Club in Birch Bay.

“We couldn’t have this without all the groundwork that Brent Brentnall had done,” Williams said.

Williams said he was taken aback at the growth of the food pantry, which now serves about 40 clients per month. The initial idea for the pantry was to provide services for people who are transportation challenged and might not be able to make it to the Blaine Food Bank.

“It provides a much-needed resource for people who need food and don’t have transportation to get into Blaine,” Williams said.
CAP also runs the emergency assistance program, which distributed $22,406 in vouchers in 2011; a 12 percent increase over 2010. Voucher amounts have almost doubled from $11,216 in 2006.

Volunteers with the emergency assistance program work with local grocery stores and the Blaine electric utility to distribute the vouchers. Volunteers work with these vendors to set up pledges of certain amounts of money and distribute the vouchers as needed, Williams explained.

The most common request is help with electric bills. Those requesting help most often are days away from having their power shut off but cannot pay their bills because they have lost their job or encountered costly medical bills, Williams said.

Volunteers conduct interviews with Blaine or Birch Bay residents needing assistance and ask how much they are able to pay themselves. They will then pledge to the utility company to pay a certain amount of the electric bill and issue a voucher in this amount to the person or family in need.

Williams said emergency assistance volunteers will give priority to local residents who are completely without power. He said the Blaine utility staff deserve thanks for being so willing to work with the emergency assistance program and help people in need.

“[Blaine utility staff] bend over backwards to help us with any problems we might have,” Williams said.

The emergency assistance program is not designed to carry an individual from month to month, but only provide one-time support when needed. Williams said this method allows the program to use its funds to help more people.
“It’s a hand up, not a hand out,” Williams said.

CAP also encompasses the St. Martin’s Clothing Bank and Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, which distribute donated clothing and appliances, respectively, to those in need in Blaine and Birch Bay.

The clothing bank, located at the intersection of Fifth and C streets next to the Blaine Food Bank, had 2,409 client visits in 2010 and 2562 visits in 2011; a 6 percent increase. Williams said the clothing bank is always on the lookout for clean, gently used clothing that’s free of mold and mildew.

“If you wouldn’t use them for your family, then we don’t want them at the clothing bank,” Williams said.

CAP as a whole relies solely on volunteers and donations, and took in about $22,000 in donations last year. The Salvation Army, the city of Blaine and Puget Sound Energy are some of the CAP’s largest contributors.

Williams said one of the reasons for detailing CAP’s distributions is to let the two communities know how much help the programs received. Williams said he is greatly indebted to the more than 80 volunteers and hundreds of other community members who donate money because they alone make CAP possible.

The Birch Bay Food Pantry, located at 4672 Loft Lane in Birch Bay, is open from 10 a.m. to noon on the first and third Mondays of the month. For more information on the pantry, call Chapman at 360/303-9850.

The St. Martin’s Clothing Bank is open from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Fridays.

The Blaine Food Bank is open Tuesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 5 to 7 p.m. For more information, call 360/332-6350.

For more general information on the CAP and to find out how to volunteer, contact Williams at 360/739-8184. If emergency assistance is needed, call 360/392-8484.