Gerald “Jerry” West, a philanthropist who served a key role in founding the local charity Martha’s Pantry, died Tuesday from an infection at 84 years old.
West was instrumental in starting and operating Martha’s Pantry in the 1980s, a charity which helps people living with HIV and AIDS with basic necessities like food, clothing and hygiene products. The nonprofit’s Hazel Dell location remains active today.
“Jerry was a light. He was kind,” said Vicki Smith, executive director of Martha’s Pantry. “He loved people, and he had the heart of a saint.”
Martha’s Pantry sprung from a mission at Metropolitan Community Church of the Gentle Shepherd, which at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic began conducting outreach to affected communities. Gay and queer people bore the brunt of the epidemic.
“Jerry was a gay man, and when the disease came into the community, it impacted his friends. He lost literally hundreds of people. He could count them,” Smith said. “He just had to do something. His heart wouldn’t let him not do something.”
West, who volunteered at the church, began the program by delivering groceries and cleaning supplies to the homes of people in need, said Daryn Nelsen-Soza, president of the pantry’s board of directors.
“He put stuff in the trunk of his car and drove it to people’s houses to make sure they had warm clothes, food, cleaning supplies – whatever they needed,” Nelsen-Soza said. “He just saw what needed to be done, and he did it.”
The program grew too big for one person, so Martha’s Pantry was born, a tiny supply room that operated out of the church at 2200 Broadway. People with HIV or AIDS and their families could come by and shop for free supplies.
“We went through some hard times. Our church membership fell, and the pantry was small. The pantry was the size of a large bathroom,” Smith said. “If Jerry had not both financially and by his presence been there, there would be no Martha’s Pantry.”
In 2013, the charity moved to a new, larger location at Vancouver United Church of Christ in Hazel Dell, operating from around 800 square feet.
But the nonprofit would face another severe hurdle: Arson closed both Vancouver United Church of Christ and Martha’s Pantry in 2016. The charity temporarily relocated to Vancouver Heights United Methodist Church until the Hazel Dell church could be rebuilt. In 2018 Martha’s Pantry finally was able to return home, to a new, spacious spot on the ground floor with better amenities.
West remained a loyal volunteer for decades, Smith said.
“Jerry would come in the morning and make coffee, sometimes he’d make cakes,” Smith said. “The point is welcoming these folks, who by the way were very marginalized by society.”
West was born in South Dakota and moved to the Vancouver area as a child. In 1958, he graduated from Clark College. He’d go on to spend four decades as an educator, working at Columbia High School in White Salmon, Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School and the La Center School District. He ended his professional career at The Arc of Southwest Washington, a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities.
He’d frequently take friends from the Arc into Martha’s Pantry to volunteer.
“He had a really good ability to remember who you were,” Nelsen-Soza said. “He remembered people when they came in the door, and always made you feel welcome and greeted.”
Martha’s Pantry is located at Vancouver United Church of Christ at 1220 N.E. 68th St. It’s open Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.
Today, it serves around a hundred people a month, according to Smith.
“I think there are leaders in the community that are out there and they’re vocal and they’re making a lot of noise,” Nelsen-Soza said. “Jerry was what I very lovingly referred to as a quiet leader. He just did it. And by his dedication, he was just able to get people to follow.”
Family and friends will celebrate West’s life in a ceremony at Apostolic Lutheran Church. The church’s pastor, Jason Salmi, said Thursday that the details of that ceremony have yet to be determined.
“I think about the pantry, and all the lives that he touched – it’s a big hole in our community,” Nelsen-Soza said.