A milestone for the nonprofit Friends In Sonoma Helping
A nonprofit like FISH is rare due to its total dependence on volunteers for every task within the organization. An all-volunteer organization celebrating 50 years of service is very, very rare. FISH, with its mission to provide basic safety net services for all Sonoma Valley neighbors, has provided food, clothing, rides, rental assistance, medical equipment, a listening ear, and the voice of compassion since 1971.
The formula is simple, says Sandy Pottier, the executive director. “It’s neighbors caring for neighbors.”
From the very first phone call 50 years ago requesting a restaurant recommendation to the 20,000 phone calls during the pandemic, FISH has responded. Today a team of over 100 volunteers handles all the duties, and all while taking time to listen, understand, and empathize with those who find themselves in need of these services.
Wildfires, a pandemic. The circumstances can be community wide, or individually specific. Work-related accidents, illness, unemployment, car repair bills, seniors on limited income, a broken water pipe, a bout of depression, seasonal work that ends after harvest, an increase in rent, rejection of a disability claim, promised child support that arrives late or not at all.
“FISH provides goods and services to stem the tide of bad luck and the catastrophes faced by many of our neighbors,” Pottier says. “FISH is that safety net of stability in a chaotic world.”
Because of the real-time impact of their work, volunteers find the work particularly gratifying. “As those we serve return to stability, they often call, send a note, text, or email words of appreciation,” Pottier says, “It is not uncommon to hear from young adults about receiving FISH food that sustained their family during difficult times when they were young children.
This year numerous cards and notes were addressed to the rent volunteers who worked endlessly to provide nearly 1,000 rental checks during the pandemic. One note captures the sentiment: “During the storm, FISH, you are my rainbow!”
Both the October 2017 fire and the 2020 pandemic tested the FISH mettle. In response to the crisis, FISH expanded its services as more people became homeless overnight during the fire or became unemployed overnight upon the shelter-in-place order.
In both cases the donations kept pace with the acceleration of services, Pottier said, and volunteers stepped up. During the fire FISH distributed gift certificates for food in front of Safeway, which managed to stay open during the power outage while the fire raged. A clothing annex was quickly established at Sonoma United Methodist Church when FISH Central was in the evacuation zone. Mountains of donated items were stored in Rabbi Steve’s huge garage while dozens of volunteers sorted toys, clothing, personal care items, and groceries.
FISH may have led the charge to cope with the tons of donations, but it was the legions of community volunteers who provided the volunteer hours to accomplish the tasks.
Pottier says the lessons learned from the 2017 fire were applied to the 2020 pandemic. “Crisis requires efficiency so that resources become available immediately to the many in need.”
Examples: the Food Room revamped its pick-up system to address both increased demand and safety protocols. A streamlined system was developed to reduce the time between financial-aid requests and payments. Volunteer staff dealt with callers distraught over loss of jobs, fear of contracting COVID, and emotional demands from confinement.
As the pandemic extended into a second year, FISH continued to provide goods, services, and empathy. It resonates. “The immense support and trust from the Sonoma Valley community during the crisis translated directly into frequent donations generous enough to meet every request for assistance.”
FISH has embarked on some structural changes designed to sharpen its focus on providing services.
“Over the past 50 years the Sonoma Valley community has experienced significant demographic changes along with advances in our understanding of nutrition and healthy food,“ Pottier explains. “This year we have developed an increased sensitivity to diversity, equity, and inclusion. New research has identified new tools for ending hunger that includes the power of relationships, choice, and connections. Welcoming hospitality has emerged as the most important service an organization like FISH can provide.”
FISH started as a faith-based organization with the initial support of $5 each month pledged by six churches. It has evolved into a community-based organization that provided over one million dollars for pandemic relief during 2020. The ten phone calls from the first week of the FISH phoneline is now 20,000 phone calls and 2,000 web-based applications during the pandemic.
In the early years Faith Lutheran Church hosted the Clothing Room, and Trinity Episcopal Church hosted the Food Room. “Today, due to the foresight and wisdom of Committee 2000, FISH Central houses food, clothing, medical equipment, layettes, Bell Ringing supplies, and 50 years of Steering Committee minutes.”
And behind every good deed there is the face of a FISH volunteer – often retired, always caring, usually passionate, and consistently generous.
“Our kind and willing volunteers bring a smile to every task and to each individual,” Pottier says. “The enduring spirit of FISH that has served Sonoma Valley for 50 years is, in short, simply a group of volunteers committed to community building by helping one neighbor at a time.”