Friends help friends at church's Hazel Dell food bank

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter



Edelweiss, Edelweiss

What’s an edelweiss? It’s a little white flower. It’s a Rogers and Hammerstein song about same from “The Sound of Music.”

Und, it was a Hazel Dell restaurant serving up traditional German fare — bratwurst and beers, fondue and schnitzels, pickled cabbage and apple strudel — from a distinctive Bavarian-style building that grabbed freeway eyeballs for years. The place opened in 1973 and closed in 2002. A plan to turn it into a contemporary nightclub called Doc Holliday’s never materialized. The River of Life church bought the 9,600-square-foot building in 2005, but took years to make the move and get the food bank running.

If you’re interested in helping out or getting involved, call the church at 360-573-4441.

Nothing gives Vicki Koffel a greater thrill than throwing open the door at 3 p.m. on Wednesday and beaming at all her queued-up friends. They tend to beam back, she said.

You are all my friends and family, Koffel might tell them. Plus, today, you're really going to love the beefsteak tomatoes!

Koffel, 66, volunteers every week at a busy, yet nearly invisible, food bank that's tucked away from Highway 99 at 811 N.E. 88th Court. The site is just beside Interstate 5, south of Walmart. Longtime Clark County residents know it as the former Edelweiss Inn. For the past three years, it's been the River of Life Foursquare Church.

River of Life operates a Wednesday afternoon food bank that draws volunteers and clients from across age, language and cultural barriers. Servers, most of them senior citizens such as Koffel, have been brushing up on Russian and Spanish and getting to know the big families living in apartment complexes in the Hazel Dell area.

They're hearing plenty about layoffs, foreclosures, crushing debt and medical problems. At the same time, they're hearing how much better it is here than back in the old country -- because of outfits like this all-volunteer food bank.

"A lady came in and said her sister in Bulgaria has no food. No bread. Nothing," said Koffel. "She was so grateful for what we gave her, it made us feel like crying."

Rev. Craig Maki said his River of Life Church was based across town in the Orchards area for 12 years, and it operated a food bank there -- plus a hot meal service. Koffel volunteered there, too -- after first lining up outside as one of those hungry people. But she didn't feel like accepting any charity without helping out that very first day, she said.

It turned out to be the beginning of a way of life for Koffel.

"I was there, I know what it feels like. But we were just welcomed so much, it was wonderful. I just want to pay that back," she said.

Welcoming her many friends to the food bank "gives me such a warm, wonderful feeling." Life was a lot less satisfying, she said, when the River of Life spent years readying its new Hazel Dell home and Koffel had to wait to volunteer.

"It didn't feel like I was worth a lot. I like feeling I have something to contribute. I always look forward to coming here," she said.

Evolving mission

The whole thing got started, Maki said, because he was troubled about giving coins to panhandlers at freeway exits. He couldn't give to every single needy person he saw, but he could tell them where to get sustenance, he figured.

At first, the food bank aimed to provide supplemental food that would help families stretch their grocery budgets by $30 or $40 a month. But eventually, it turned into a full-fledged food pantry, assembling boxes that contain a three-day supply of nutritious food for a small family.

River of Life signed up with the Oregon Food Bank Network, which supplies food pantries in Clark County, and received valuable technical assistance as well as access to good deals -- like "shopping the dock," where charities can comb fresh produce offerings at the OFBN loading dock and pay the bargain-basement sum of five cents per pound.

River of Life also works with the Clark County Food Bank and numerous supermarkets and other suppliers offering up food that's considered surplus or past its pull date (but is still safe and nutritious). In fact, Maki said, food itself isn't the major cost for an operation like River of Life; what costs more is fuel and building expenses.

River of Life moves about a ton of food through the place each week, Maki said, providing food to about 220 individuals during the two hour it is open — 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays. Many of those individuals are in big family groups, with the children or grandchildren — or great grandchildren — translating for the rest. But they're certainly not all non-native English speakers, he said.

"It gets real noisy in here because everybody is visiting and socializing," Koffel said.

"Neighbors should help neighbors," Maki said. "That's how Jesus wanted it." But, he added, "it has nothing to do with our church. You can come in and be part of this family on Wednesdays and never come to our church. That's not the point.

"The point is, food is a necessity for everyone."