Musing: How a little FISH made a big splash

A recent Index-Tribune article about the 50th anniversary of FISH (Friends in Sonoma Helping) triggered memories of how this incredibly durable local organization came to be. It’s official start was June 15,1971, preceded by an announcement in this very newspaper.

But long before that, many of the Sonomans instrumental in the formation of the formal organization were doing the good work in collaboration within an informal network of friends. They were known by their good deeds for all in need.

So many of the early volunteers, including Jerry Casson, for whom our Vintage House Senior Center is named, were known throughout the Valley as the people who would step forward to help fellow Sonomans when there was no one else.

From the beginning it was a grassroots, all-volunteer group with no government funding, totally dependent on church congregations, friends and local business owners for support.

When the steering committee for the organization was formed in 1971, it consisted of the same people who had been doing the work all along: Jane Bergen, St. Andrew Presbyterian Church; Beryl Hattam, Faith Lutheran; Helen Henry, First Congregational; Mrs. J.A. Nigro, St. Leo’s; Betty Tinker, Grace Reformed; Andrea Young, Trinity Episcopal; Rev. Hugh Goss, St. Andrew Presbyterian; and Father Patrick Moriarty, St. Francis Solano, as well as Jerry Casson, Peg McAleese and others who gave of themselves independent of a specific church.

Even after the official establishment, FISH was still a small, seat-of-the-pants, organization. It had no office. An answering service routed calls for help to the homes of individual volunteers.

When transportation was needed, the FISH workers used their own cars. As unique needs arose, they found a way to address each one. They had an extensive network of generous supporters on whom they could call for help, and were frequent visitors to the Index-Tribune office to ask for the newspaper’s assistance, especially in publishing requests for donations, for which there was always a need. Those articles always seemed to produce the needed items.

With the establishment of a formal organization, a more coordinated and comprehensive effort was possible, but that took time. The steering committee’s first accomplishment was to recruit more volunteers. They ended up with more than 50.

They acquired a special FISH phone number, and raised enough money for a 24-hour answering service.

Very quickly, the FISH organization was flooded with more requests, particularly in the area of transporting local residents to doctors appointments and hospitals in and outside Sonoma Valley. This prompted an additional effort to find more drivers, which was published for several weeks in the I-T.

Feeding the hungry was and still is a primary goal. In those important early days local churches were the main collection points for food donations, as well clothing.

The early efforts were so effective that in 1972, Anne Hattam, coordinator of the FISH program and fulltime secretary at Sonoma Valley High School, was honored as Sonoma County’s “Volunteer of the Year.” She directed the activities of more than 75 volunteers and arranged the food and clothing needed to meet emergency requests, not to mention editing and publishing the group’s weekly newsletter. In response to the award, Hattam gave full credit for the program’s success to the volunteers and clergy people who handled an average of 160 emergency calls a month during FISH’s first year.

From its first year to its present 50th, FISH has been a remarkable success story and testimony to the generous spirit of those who give so much of their time to help those less fortunate here in our community.

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