Helping Hands says goodbye after 18 years

NORTH BEND - Arthur Mitchell has been working at the Mount Si Helping Hands Food bank for the past five years. A jack-of-all-trades with a knack for carpentry and landscaping, he is unable to afford the housing rates in the Valley.

So, he shares a cramped trailer with a roommate on a small piece of rural property in North Bend, preferring to sleep in a tent most nights when it's warm enough.

Not only has he volunteered his time at the food bank, he has also been a recipient of its services.

At Ken McCarty's retirement party last Wednesday, Mitchell thanked McCarty - who has run the food bank for almost 18 years - shaking his hand and expressing his appreciation for the help and for the experience of working alongside him.

"Ken's a wonderful person," Mitchell said. "He's a champion. I just love him."

Fellow volunteers and friends of McCarty's (including North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing) who attended the party held at the North Bend Community Church next to the food bank expressed similar sentiments.

Words such as steadfast, stalwart, passionate, organized, graceful and "a trooper" were mentioned throughout the celebration to describe McCarty's character.

At the party, a photo and scrapbook rested on a table, along with a giant sheet cake with words of well-wishing, snacks and gifts.

"He's just an inspiration to everyone in the Valley," said Mary Brown, a retired pastor from Snoqualmie United Methodist Church who worked with McCarty at the food bank. "I saw his grace firsthand."

A retired rocket scientist, McCarty moved to North Bend in 1987 from Utah and began volunteering the following year after someone nominated him, developing his role as the main coordinator.

"I saw something that needed to be done," McCarty said. "I didn't realize what I was getting into, but it's very rewarding."

Though he's not quite sure what he will do next, at 77, McCarty said he is probably ready to retire.

He said the first thing he will do is "try to recover."

McCarty, who is also a member of Snoqualmie Valley Kiwanis and has been a guest speaker at Two Rivers School's graduation ceremonies for the past few years, said his future plans include travel. He has already been as far as Australia, Greece and Turkey.

He is set for a cruise to Alaska in the spring of next year and would like to go on a train ride through the Rocky Mountains next September.

He and his wife of 41 years, Anne, intend to move out of the area to a retirement community in Bellevue as soon as they get their home ready to put up for sale.

A man described by his pastor, Paul Hermansen, as "humble," McCarty said what he will miss most will be the people.

"I've developed quite a relationship with the people who come to this food bank," he said.

McCarty said he has slowly phased himself out of his coordinator position over the past few months, passing the volunteer responsibilities to Gail Gergasko, a retired insurance underwriter with a daughter in college.

The coordinator position takes about 20 to 25 hours of work per week, she said.

About 120 community members volunteer their services each week, cleaning, organizing, picking up the food and donations, driving trucks, loading and unloading and serving the food each Wednesday from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5:30-6:30 p.m.

Anyone can use the services, Gergasko said.

The average family size for those served is three and one-half people, and 93 percent are from North Bend and Snoqualmie.

The food is distributed based on the size of the family.

Perishable food that is not distributed is donated for farm animal feed on Thursdays, though there are emergency food supplies for those in need of immediate assistance.

Anywhere from 200 to 260 people come by each week, McCarty estimated.

"They are not your stereotype," McCarty said, noting that he has seen the need increase greatly over the years. "They are families and children pretty much at a crossroads."

He said that since the population in the Valley is increasing, housing prices have also increased, causing some people in the area to have full-time jobs and still need food bank services.

The 1,500-square-foot food bank is located next door to the church, but is overseen by the Ministerial Association and not associated specifically with the church, though it does provide the space.

At the party, McCarty and Gergasko were presented with a check for almost $900 from Snoqualmie Valley Crop Walk co-chairs Leonard Eiger and Lyn Melton.

Sponsored by the Church World Service, the crop walk is a community-based fund-raising event for local hunger-fighting agencies. The Snoqualmie Methodist Church Crop Walk Committee designated a maximum 25 percent of funds raised to the Mount Si Helping Hands Food Bank.

"They are our local food bank in the Valley," Eiger said. "We need to support our local food bank, which has a great need, unfortunately."

The food bank, which has been around for more than 30 years, welcomes food donations, although monetary donations are also welcome so that during the times when food donations are low, the group may purchase items.

"He's been a good director," said John Perazzo, who has worked with McCarty for the past seven years with distribution.

"I've never seen anyone care about the recipients so much," Hermansen said. "His work has been tremendous ... He's leaving the food bank in very good hands, but he's going out on top."

Though McCarty is retiring, Gergasko said the food bank will continue to provide services to those in the Valley.

"We're here as long as the need is here," she said. "A good day [will be] when we are not needed at all."

For information about the food bank, call (425) 888-0096.

Other food banks in the area:

Sno-Valley Hopelink

31957 E. Commercial St.

Carnation, WA 98014

(425) 333-4163

Issaquah Valley

Community Services

179 First Ave. S.E.

Issaquah, WA 98027

(425) 392-4123

Snoqualmie Nonprofit

Food Bank

31822 E. Myrtle St.

Carnation, WA 98014

(425) 333-6551

Henry Ford Memorial

Food Bank

* Located below the bridge next to the Preston Baptist Church.

31104 S.E. 86th St.

Preston, WA

(425) 222-5573

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