Help House celebrates 45 years
— Created July 13, 2022 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
North Whidbey Help House is celebrating its 45th anniversary and everyone is invited to join the fun. There will be an anniversary party Saturday from 2-4 p.m. at the Help House, located at 1091 SE Hathaway Street in downtown Oak Harbor. The community is invited to enjoy hamburgers, hot dogs, salads and all the fixings, plus live music by Marty and the Moontans. Those attending are encouraged to bring family-friendly beverages (no alcohol) to enjoy.
“This is our way of saying ‘Thank you’ to the community for supporting us for the last 45 years,” said Jean Wieman, executive director.
Wieman, who has been the director for 18 years, has been with North Whidbey Help House for a total of 26 years, over half of the organization’s existence. She said she’s seen many changes over the course of that time. There have been good times, there have been lean times, but there has always been overwhelming community support.
“We could not have survived for 45 years without this community. I can never say that enough,” Wieman said. “That’s how we stay open, through the generosity of the community. Whether it’s somebody calling us up and saying ‘Hey, we’re doing a food drive for you,’ or someone from a foundation or grocery story getting a hold of me saying, ‘You need to put in for a grant, now,’ we would not be here if not for the community.”
She recalled a time several years ago when the warehouse’s shelves were down to less than a three-week supply of food. The community came through.
“We got 10,000 pounds of food in two weeks – how incredible is that?” Wieman said.
Part of that community support rests on the Help House’s reputation, according to Wieman. She said people trust the money they donate is being used wisely. In fact, 96.4 percent of Help House’s funding comes through private donations. The rest comes from the state. Of its annual funds, just six percent goes toward administrative costs. Help House operates with four employees and an ever-changing number of volunteers.
One of just three official food banks on Whidbey Island, Help House was founded in 1977.
“It actually started on the south end,” Wieman said of Help House’s founding. “There was a group called Helping Hands, which I think is still together. There were several people from the north end that would meet with Helping Hands down on the south end. And in approximately 1974, ’75, they decided maybe something should be started on the north end of the island, since that’s where the majority of the population on the island was. So a group got together, got a board of directors, had all the meetings and filed for a nonprofit for ‘North Whidbey Help,’ that’s our actual, legal name. The charter was signed on July 7, 1977.”
The nonprofit organization has been in the same spot since it opened. The home, built in 1892, has served many different purposes during its 130 years.
“This building has been many things through the years,” Wieman said. “It was originally built by Jerome Ely, who was the first mayor of Oak Harbor. It was built for one of his sons to live in. It then became a rental. At one time this was where the midwife lived and this was where the babies were born. At one time it was a crisis center, people could come here and stay after they got out of jail, or rehab – kind of a halfway house.”
Then, in the early 1970s, a young man decided he wanted to help feed families. He recruited a group of high school students, one of whom told Wieman they were thrilled when the first person came through the door.
“He told me ‘I will never forget it. We got so excited. We kept putting food together. We brought it out and it was a family of six. We went, wow, this is cool,’” she recounted. “So it kind of grew from that.”
When Wieman started, the Help House had clothing and household items people could take. But that took up too much space in the 900-odd-square-foot home, and in 1997, the organization got rid of those items. She has seen other physical changes during her tenure as well.
“Originally when I started, we had two Conex boxes, a wooden shed and a single car garage that we had full of freezers,” Wieman described. “One of the Conex boxes was for sorting, the other was to keep a week’s supply of food. We had a building over on the Sea Plane base and they had given us half of the building to use for storage. So we would have to make trips a couple of times a week to go get food.”
At the time, Wieman said people could come in once a week to get food, and Help House provided about 130 food baskets a month. In 2002, the base storage facility scheduled for demolition.
“Somebody, in their infinite wisdom, had put some money away, so that’s when we built our warehouse,” she said. “We were fortunate to have the money to do that.”
Volunteers enclosed the produce stand and added shelves, and with money from the state, they were able to make other improvements. The high school woodworking class traded one of the Help House’s Conex boxes for its tool shed. Someone else asked if he could gravel the driveway in exchange for taking photos to promote his business, so “community” is woven throughout many of the changes the Help House has seen.
Changes in the food stamp program in the late 1990s meant changes in distribution – instead of being able to come to the food bank once a week, people could only come twice a month. At that point, the Help House was providing about 350 food baskets a month. Numbers increased to over 500 a month and Wieman said they were forced to cut back to once-a-month distribution. But the COVID crisis changed all that.
“In February 2021, we had so many donations come in and our numbers were at about 250-275, so we thought, ‘We have all this food, we’re here to give it away,’ so we went back to twice a month. And our numbers are up. In May, it was 364 this year, last year it was 308, so we’re starting to see an increase.”
Wieman estimates about 60 to 70 percent of their clients today are singles or couples. But that is beginning to shift as prices continue to rise.
“As the year has gone on, we’re starting to see the bigger families,” she said. “We’re seeing an uptick. I’m glad we’re able to keep up. That’s why we do Christmas in July, because we just spent $4,000 having to buy food.”
In 45 years, the need for North Whidbey Help House has never gone away, although that’s something Wieman always hopes will happen.
“To be out of a job would not necessarily be a good thing for me, but it would be a wonderful thing if it could be that way,” she said. “Unfortunately, there’s always that part of the population that are seniors living on a fixed income, people that are disabled, living on SSI, people that are working but are not able to make it and that’s never going to go away. And that’s why we’re here.”
For information on how to donate or volunteer, visit northwhidbeyhelphouse.org.