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Dedicated volunteer refuses to give up feeding Santa Rosa's hungry

  • Jeanne-Marie Jones hands out bags of food to those in need as the volunteer executive director of the FISH food pantry in Santa Rosa. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

Jeanne-Marie Jones doesn't recall ever missing a meal, despite having spent a chunk of her childhood in the jaws of the Great Depression.

But, early on, her mother taught her that people with food on the table have a human duty to share with those who don't.

"I never went hungry, but my mother did," said Jones, at 87 a peppy, well-spoken retired public-schools office worker. "She shipped graham crackers to the people in Appalachia at one time."

Jones' mom would surely be proud of her. Jones works one long shift per week at an extraordinary Santa Rosa pantry that last year provided free groceries to nearly 61,000 people, and she puts in time virtually every day as the charitable operation's unpaid director.

These days she works overtime as the FISH, or Friends In Service Here, pantry takes on the challenge of finding a new home. "It's going to be hard for us, I'm sure," she said.

The pantry was born in 1973 in a spare room at the First United Methodist Church on Montgomery Drive. For the past 17 years, it has thrived in an obsolete former city firehouse on Benton Street. All those years, the city allowed FISH to use the building for free, and it paid the power bill.

"We've been pampered by the city, and we appreciate it," Jones said. "But it's still hurting."

Last year, city officials notified the FISH volunteers, most of them in their 70s to 90s, that they must move out sometime this year. Were City Hall to continue owning and allowing public use of the Benton Street building, the structure would have to be upgraded this year to comply with the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

City officials have said they cannot justify spending that money on the old building, so it will be sold.

Jones and the other volunteers who distribute food six days a week could have decided to shut FISH down, declaring that it had a good run for 40 years.

Not a chance.

"We're determined to continue," Jones declared. "We just have to find a spot where we can continue."

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