North Bay Spirit Award winner Kaarin Lee serves the hungry
Editor note: Because of the coronavirus pandemic, F.I.S.H. food pantry closed on March 15 and has directed clients in need of groceries to call the Redwood Empire Food Bank at 707-523-7903.
Kaarin Lee asks every client she meets at Santa Rosa’s F.I.S.H. food pantry if they have a place to cook and if they need a can opener.
It’s not to distinguish between those who are homeless and might not have kitchens and those who aren’t. It’s to make certain each person receives the food and utensils they need.
“If you don’t have a place to cook, we will give you food that you don’t have to cook,” said Lee, volunteer executive director at F.I.S.H., or Friends In Service Here, since 2017.
The volunteer-run food pantry serves 6,000 people each month. Last year, the organization was faced with being homeless itself, when the landlord of the building it occupied gave F.I.S.H. six months’ notice to move out. Lee was instrumental in finding a new, larger location, which allowed more space for freezers, refrigerators, food and clients.
“Our mission is to serve every client with dignity and respect and just be a helping hand,” Lee said.
“We serve homeless people. We serve veterans. We serve anybody who comes to our door. We don’t ask any questions.”
Lee’s years of helping people in need, bolstered by a sense of altruism she learned from her mother, makes her this month’s North Bay Spirit Award winner. The Press Democrat and Comcast jointly recognize individuals who selflessly volunteer their time to help solve community problems in Sonoma County.
Lee said the honor should be credited to the 50 hardworking, peppy volunteers who keep the food pantry running.
“This Spirit Award goes to every single volunteer at F.I.S.H. It’s an amazing place to be, full of good cheer and spirit,” Lee said. “People are so loyal. They’re always there on their shift. If they can’t make it, they find their own substitute.”
Finding a new home
F.I.S.H. began humbly in 1972 in a small room at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Rosa. Lee started volunteering at F.I.S.H. about a decade ago, after learning about it while volunteering with the Redwood Empire Food Bank.
As volunteer executive director, “she’s had to deal with a lot of stress on her, but she’s handled it very well,” said John Dennison, a F.I.S.H. volunteer since 1991 and former client.
That stress includes funding the food pantry and overcoming an unexpected obstacle thrown her way last spring, when the landlord of the food pantry’s 2,400- square-foot building on McBride Lane gave them six months’ notice to leave. He had plans to redevelop it.
“To me, that didn’t seem like so much time,” Lee said. “We’ve literally got tons and tons of food and tables and equipment and refrigerators and freezers.”
After quietly panicking, she made it her mission to find a new building in Santa Rosa — a major challenge in a town with high rents.
Lee and her team drove around town, hoping for a larger, stand-alone building out of view of other businesses, so clients waiting in line for food would not feel shame.