Donations of food and labor are always welcome at the SixEight food pantry, Vicki Koffel said.
Brian Gunderson motored up to the SixEight food pantry on Northwest Ninth Avenue on a scooter, with his dog, Miss Cooter, leading the way. Gunderson, 55, lost one leg decades ago but stopped working only recently.
“I’ve been working my whole life, but I guess I must be retired now,” he said. He and his wife rented a nearby house until the property was foreclosed; they were caught off guard, Gunderson said, and it cost “every dime we had” to move to a different rental.
“You know how it is — first month, last month, security,” he said. Before all that happened, he said, he’d never visited a food pantry in his life.
Luther Sanow just turned 90; he spent decades managing local delivery routes for The Oregonian newspaper but then, simply put: “I ran out of money because I lived too long,” he chuckled. “Yup, I’m out of money.”
Social Security doesn’t cover both food and his mobile home rent, so he keeps the rent paid and visits this pantry twice a month. “I look forward to it because everyone is so nice,” Sanow said.
Mike Payne recently bought a home a few blocks from here. He used to manage restaurants, but now he’s unemployed. His kids attend Eisenhower Elementary School and his wife works; meanwhile, he stood on line at the food pantry on a Wednesday afternoon. That’s a new experience, he said.
“I’ve been working at restaurants since I was 16,” he said, “but now I can’t even make enough to pay for child care.”
Sonja — who didn’t want her last name used for personal reasons — works 65 hours a week as a caretaker for the elderly and mentally handicapped and makes “almost minimum wage,” she said; she also feeds eight children in a newly blended family. She picks up food at the pantry for her clients and sometimes for her own family, too.
“If (my clients) didn’t have the food banking situation, they’d starve. A lot of people like them can just fall through the cracks. This has really helped.” Her own kids aren’t at risk of starvation, she added, but there was a time when crisis struck. “This place saved me,” she said.
When organizers opened the doors of this relocated food pantry at the SixEight Church in West Hazel Dell a year ago, they weren’t sure what — that is, whom and how many — to expect.
The all-volunteer organization has leapfrogged its way around Clark County in recent years, and not by choice. It started at the River of Life church in Orchards more than a decade ago; when that church moved to the former Edelweiss Inn tucked just off Northeast Highway 99 on 88th Court, the pantry moved, too. There was no shortage of hungry families — many of them speaking Russian and Spanish — in the big apartment complexes that are plentiful in this part of Northeast Hazel Dell.
Then the church abruptly closed its doors, and the pantry went hunting for another new home. It wasn’t hard to find — barely a mile to the west, as the crow flies, at what had changed from Whipple Creek Church to SixEight Church. Pantry directors Vicki and Frank Koffel, who started out as clients in Orchards and have stuck with the organization through every move, were thrilled to get a warm welcome from lead pastor, the Rev. David Lindner.
But they had some doubts about the neighborhood and its need; they worried that their former clientele, largely located on the other side of I-5 and Highway 99, would be left behind — and left hungry.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the old Highway 99 location was not far from the center of a census tract whose median income is $38,430; the new location on Ninth Avenue is literally feet outside that tract — it’s just across the street — and technically inside a tract where the median household income is $63,700.
Surprise: It didn’t take long for old friends, and a whole lot of new friends, to find them anyway. West Hazel Dell, Felida and Salmon Creek may be a couple of ticks more upscale, on average, than the region between the freeways — but folks from those neighborhoods are flocking to SixEight, the only pantry anywhere in the vicinity, in a way that speaks volumes to its organizers about the way hunger is hidden everywhere. Even in the ‘burbs.
“A few walk up. Most drive or ride with somebody else. A few are caretakers. A few take the bus,” Frank Koffel said. Overall, he concluded: “We’re glad we moved. Nobody has had any trouble reaching us.”
The proof is in the parking lot. The SixEight pantry is open only on Wednesday afternoons and only for two hours, from 1 to 3 p.m.; when The Columbian visited on the afternoon of May 28, the place was jammed with cars, carts and people lined up near the church’s side door. Many are the Spanish- and Russian-speakers that River of Life used to serve, over on the other side of the freeway, according to Frank Koffel.
The line moved pretty quickly — and the inside hallway of the church served as both a serving line and a social mixer, with many hanging out and drinking coffee in an atmosphere not too far removed from a boisterous cocktail party (sans alcohol, of course).
“People love this place because it is so friendly,” said the always-smiling Vicki Koffel. “We give food but we give hugs, too.”
For example, there’s Sue Warren, a fan since the old River of Life days in Orchards. Warren still lives in Orchards with her husband, who is severely disabled, and her adult son, who is unemployed and has been “facing issues all his life,” she said. She is the only driver in the family, she said.
“I only come here when we really need it, not every single week,” she insisted. “But making the monthly check last is hard.” She used to enjoy the Lord’s Gym food pantry and hot meal service, too, she said, but that wound down last year. Meanwhile, she’s glad to keep visiting with her friends the Koffels.
Later that day, the SixEight pantry posted on its Facebook site — as it has done several times this year — that it had just set a new record: “Today we served a total of 130 clients, 103 through the door, 7 boxes for shut-ins, and 20 volunteers!”
Those volunteers are almost all clients, too, Vicki Koffel pointed out — just as she and Frank used to be, back when they first showed up at River of Life.
The SixEight pantry operates a little differently than most, which limit client visits to once per month. Here at SixEight, qualified clients can visit every week. One man was overheard telling volunteers that that’s been “a lifesaver” for his family. (All clients still need to have incomes verified, the Koffels said.)
That helps account for the pantry’s extreme popularity — which has cut both ways for the Koffels. SixEight is part of the Clark County Food Bank network and receives distributions from there, as well as from local retailers; nonetheless, Vicki said, there’s a core group of volunteers that lays out its own cash to bolster the pantry’s offerings.
“Last month we spent $127,” she said. “We just feel in our hearts that this food pantry is our family. We just feel this is what the Lord wants us to do.”
Volunteer Timm Rice said he comes here all the way from Hockinson to make the rounds of local food retailers to collect donations of food and bags — earning him the nickname The Bag Man, he said.
The personal connections he’s established at stores including Grocery Outlet and Fred Meyer meansthat SixEight even gets special gifts sometimes; when Rice mentioned sourdough and chocolate chip breads donated by a certain local bakery, clients and volunteers within earshot all stopped what they were doing to nod knowingly and smile: “Mmm!”
Food banks are an important part of Rice’s family history, he said, starting when his mother opened a little pantry in their Hillsboro, Ore., garage many years ago.
Now, Rice — who said he’s Jewish and not a member of the SixEight church — is devoted to this pantry and the hungry people it serves.
“It’s God’s work,” he said. “And it’s doubling and doubling.”