Celebrating 45 years of community service from F.I.S.H.

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If you live in the Sonoma Valley and are in need, there’s one place to call. And it’s the same place Sonomans have been calling for the past 45 years – Friends In Sonoma Helping, or FISH.

The larvae of FISH hatched in 1969, when Reader’s Digest published an article headlined, “A friendly neighbor called fish” – it was about a smalltown church pastor and his community helping each other. The article inspired Ling Ngo, of Virginia, to establish a community volunteer service group called FISH. Following the model of the reverend in the Reader’s Digest story, the group’s mandate was straightforward: “work simply, as caring neighbors.”

And, before long, FISH outposts began to spread.

By 1970, FISH had made it to Sonoma County, by way of Petaluma. And only a year later, a local reverend brought it to the City of Sonoma when six local churches agreed to band together to serve the unmet needs in Sonoma Valley.

On June 16, 1971, FISH switched on its first phone line in Sonoma to take calls from those who needed help. According to FISH officials, the very first call was a bit of a surprise: Did FISH know of a good restaurant in Sonoma?

Forty-five years later, the FISH phone rings with more serious requests. The group provides emergency and supplemental assistance to keep local families from homelessness and hunger, with the mission statement of “neighbors helping neighbors.”

Shortly after being officially recognized as a nonprofit organization in 1975, the law required the acronym FISH to actually stand for something, and thus hatched the name Friends In Sonoma Helping.

One of the things that makes FISH unique among nonprofits is that the “staff” is all-volunteer. Every donation is given directly to those in need. FISH now has 150 volunteers working for it, but can always use more.

Sandra Piotter and Vicki Schnurpfeil are the volunteer co-chairs. Piotter has been at FISH for five years, Schnurpfeil for 16.

“I wanted to get involved. I wanted to work with families and children,” Schnurpfeil said. “I’m a problem solver. I like to look at problems from all angles.”

The core service at FISH is its food pantry. FISH works out of a building at 18330 Sonoma Highway where needy people who have called ahead, can come pick up a bag of groceries at the pantry. Volunteers make the bags with “staple” food items that community members and stores have donated, creating grocery bags with about $80 worth of food.

When it first started, FISH had no home base; all the food was delivered. In 2002, FISH reached out to the community for support in buying a building – a rare fundraising campaign for the organization. But FISH reached its goal in six weeks through its donation drive, some as generous as $10,000, and a grant.

“It was a real asset to add this building and let people come and help themselves,” Schnurpfeil said. “They feel they’re participating then.”

Food can also be stored at the facility. Overstock or damaged goods are often donated from local stores including Safeway, Whole Foods and Sonoma Market. FISH officials use donation money to buy whatever other food is needed.

“The support is so broad and deep, that you could name any place in town, and they’ve probably helped us with something,” Piotter said.

Families can visit the pantry once a month, with some exceptions, but extra bread is left in the hallway and anyone can take as much as they would like any time.

If seniors are homebound, FISH has a special Hope program where they deliver groceries to about 40 seniors once a month.

In 2015 alone, FISH gave out groceries to 6,300 people. During the nonprofit’s annual holiday food drive, 456 families received generous amounts for seasonal dining table.

FISH also has a clothing room, where those in need can go fill up a bag of clothes, shoes, kid’s toys or random donations for free. Families are encouraged to only use it once a week and can only come between 10 a.m. and noon on Tuesday and Fridays, and between 1 and 3 p.m. on Wednesdays. Piotter and Schnurpfeil estimate more than 550 families received clothes and other objects from the clothing room in 2015.

Additionally, FISH provides layettes with baby clothes and other needs such as quilts and diapers; carefully screened baby food is also available.

FISH drivers also take seniors to medical appointments and provide bus passes. Last year, drivers gave 2,220 car rides to medical appointments, most of those being out-of-town rides. The biggest medical transportation need is getting seniors to their dialysis appointments. FISH gives around 120 to 180 rides a month. Piotter said FISH’s efforts inspired Sonoma Valley Hospital to take steps toward offering dialysis in Sonoma.

“I like when a service we provide, provides a better solution than just the service,” Piotter said.

Finally, FISH also provides help with certain bills – such as utilities – or one-time rent assistance. This past month they gave out over $8,000 to help in rent, divided between 13 families, according to Schnurpfeil. The money is given directly to the landlord, while beneficiaries are counseled about a plan for the following month’s rent.

“We want to keep women and children, particularly, in their housing, because (once you’re out) it’s really hard to get back in,” Schnurpfeil said.

The FISH phone line is open to other requests, and Piotter is hoping to expand the services they offer; she is always asking what people need.

As FISH celebrates its 45th anniversary, the volunteers are holding meetings to consider what the nonprofit will look like at 50, and what they can do to anticipate new community needs.

Piotter is hoping to make the volunteer system more flexible and easier for people to just help when they can. The biggest area of need they have is for volunteers for transportation. “One of our biggest problems is the age of our volunteers,” she said. “There is a burnout factor, not mentally, but physically. We’d love to have younger people come in.”

Piotter and Schnurpfeil are thankful for the community support in Sonoma. “It allows Sonoma to be a safe, loving, giving spot in a sometimes complex world that challenges those values,” Piotter said.

With 45 years of service under its belt and bright hopes for the future, FISH is ready to swim even deeper into uncharted “helping” waters.

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