North Bay Spirit Award winner Kaarin Lee serves the hungry

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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.

“I would never, never want anybody to feel that way,” she said.

After several months of searching, F.I.S.H. volunteer Jennifer Emery found a place and told Lee about it. The rent was above their budget, but they looked at it anyway.

“Well, of course, we fell in love with it,” Lee said. “We just said, somehow, we’ve got to do it. We’ve just got to have this place.”

When they told the landlord they were interested, he lowered the rent for them. They moved in by Nov. 1 after long days of hauling food, freezers and refrigerators. And there was a delay as a result of the Kincade fire.

“It took a lot longer than what we had anticipated because of the fires, and we were in the evacuation zone over at the old building. We were able to have a few extra days to move out, but it went super smooth,” Emery said.

The volunteers dreamt of having one bay to unload food. Now they have four. In their former location, unloading and reloading each pallet was a laborious process. With a pallet jack at the new place, there’s less heavy lifting. There’s plentifuly of parking for clients and a cheerful spirit among the volunteers.

“This is kind of a big deal for us,” Lee said.

When Emery volunteers at the pantry, she often brings her teenage daughter, who has special needs.

“Kaarin is always so positive and so loving and uplifting to my child,” Emery said. “We’re all friends around here. I can’t say enough about the respect that I have for Kaarin.”

“She’s respectful, she’s gracious to anyone that’s sitting in that chair next to her,” said F.I.S.H. volunteer Jeannie Green of Lee’s manner with clients. “She’s made a huge difference in this community.”

Altruistic spirit

Lee was born and raised in San Francisco, where she watched her mother do community volunteer work of all kinds — through their church, as a census taker and at the city’s juvenile hall, where she counseled incarcerated teens.

When Lee’s friends came over to their home, her mother “dispensed miles and miles of kitchen-table wisdom and advice,” Lee said. One lesson that stuck with Lee was to help other people if you can.

“I have just always felt that we’re a part of a community and if we have time and energy, it’s really important to infuse yourself in that community and do whatever you can to make it a better place and easier on those who don’t have it so easy,” Lee said.

She moved in 1972 to Sonoma County, where she and her husband, Michael, were members of the original Kenwood Vineyards family. They were a part of the family operation for about 30 years.

In 2001, they purchased 50 acres in the Sonoma Valley and named their operation Montecillo Vineyard, Spanish for “little mountain.” Michael Lee died in 2011.

The couple have two grown daughters who live in Santa Cruz. Lee and her daughters now own and operate the Montecillo Vineyard together.

About 12 years ago, Lee decided to volunteer at the Redwood Empire Food Bank. She took calls at the front desk and directed people seeking food to local pantries. The first referral was always to F.I.S.H of Santa Rosa.

Later, she read an article about F.I.S.H. in The Press Democrat and it piqued her interest enough to volunteer at the pantry.

“I found that it’s such a simple, direct operation,” Lee said of F.I.S.H. “It is food in, food out. Clients in, see the clients, clients go home with the food. And it’s all volunteer, and that just warms my heart.”

Dennison, a past recipient of the North Bay Spirit Award, said it’s not just Santa Rosans who come to the pantry. In the aftermath of the 2018 Paradise fire, people came all the way from Butte County for food.

“There’s just a great need in our society where people cannot make ends meet,” Dennison said. “We see it every day, our clients are increasing, not decreasing.”

F.I.S.H. purchases food from the Redwood Empire Food Bank and receives food donations from local grocery stores.

“I have a real problem with people hungry in this very rich country of ours — rich in farmland and food — and I don’t like to see anything go to waste,” Lee said. “Most people are so grateful to get a little help.”

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