It has been almost five years ago that Barbara Bennett called upon Spokane Valley residents to brighten the holidays for hundreds of their less fortunate neighbors.
The shelves of the Spokane Valley Food Bank sat unusually vacant in early November 2005, just a few weeks before the annual Thanksgiving Day distribution. Bennett, the longtime director who started as a volunteer with the food bank in 1991, sounded the alert for donations and quickly discovered the generosity of a community.
|Barbara Bennett started as a volunteer with the Spokane Valley Food Bank in 1991 and became the full-time director of the agency in 1999. In March, Bennett announced that she would transition into the role of distribution director.
Photo by: Craig Howard
“It was the most amazing thing,” Bennett said. “We just called everyone and for two days, we had this steady stream of cars and trucks dropping off food. It turned out to be a fantastic Thanksgiving.”
These days, clients, volunteers and donors associated with the food bank are expressing their gratitude to Bennett who stepped down as director in June and now works once a week as distribution director. In May, she was named Citizen of the Year by the Spokane Association of Realtors. At Valleyfest, Bennett was honored as a grand marshal in the Hearts of Gold along with other local leaders who work to provide nutrition for area residents.
“Barbara has been the central coordinating factor for the food bank for years,” said Ken Briggs, executive director of Spokane Valley Partners. “It’s a tough job. She really cares that it continues to be successful.”
While semi-retirement might mean only one day of work a week, Bennett is still very involved in the ongoing functions of an agency that, last year, provided 1.2 million pounds of food for nearly 11,500 households. She puts in eight to 10 hours each Wednesday, the day when hundreds of clients visit food bank headquarters at 10814 E. Broadway to fill out their grocery lists.
Connie Nelson, who took over for Bennett as director, said her predecessor still provides a wealth of knowledge, helping the food bank recruit volunteers, collaborate with grocery stores and other businesses while ensuring that the most hectic day of the week runs smoothly.
“I’m glad Barbara is still here,” Nelson said. “She’s basically the walking history of not only the food bank but the community involvement as well.”
The roots of the transition go back to the beginning of 2010 when SVP announced that budget cuts would likely include layoffs of both Nelson as programs director and Don Kaufman as development director. Since the food bank is now under the umbrella of SVP, Bennett heard of the proposed changes and approached management about the possibility of scaling back her hours and having Nelson – who had worked as program manager at Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest – take over as director.
“I was thinking about retirement, but this way, I could still be involved,” Bennett said. “At some point, I will transition out, but right now I think it’s working out well.”
Bennett continues to emphasize the “hand up, not a handout” approach that has become the agency’s unofficial slogan going back to the days when the Spokane Valley Community Center and the food bank were housed in a drafty building on Pines and Union. Cooking classes – underlining subjects like nutrition, convenience and cost-effectiveness – are offered on each Wednesday.
“We’re teaching them to help themselves,” Bennett said.
The success of the cooking classes – also taught in Russian – has been followed by other food banks throughout the state. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture honored the Valley Food Bank with the prestigious “Exellence Award” for its contributions to the community.
Food bank volunteers also point clients to various resources either at SVP or elsewhere in the community. A representative from Lutheran Community Services is at the center each Wednesday, providing information about counseling available for issues such as domestic violence and abuse.
From school supplies to affordable dentistry to a women, infants and childrens health clinic, Bennett lets food bank clients know that the adjacent community center is there to provide support. Before she became full-time director of the food bank, Bennett worked as the center’s assistant director.
“We’re doing our best for the people who need help,” she said. “I think anyone knows that it could be them or their family.”
Bennett has spoken at meetings and seminars sponsored by such groups as the Washington State Food Coalition and Second Harvest, describing the multi-faceted approach at the food bank. While she has earned her share of accolades for the success of the organization, Bennett is quick to pass along the credit to a corps of reliable volunteers.
“The volunteers are really the key to what we do here,” she said. “They are always so kind and understanding with our clients. They understand that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”