The board of directors of Key Peninsula Community Services hired Tracy Stirrett in January to fill the top spot vacated by outgoing Executive Director Penny Gazabat, who led the organization for 10 years and retired at the close of 2018.
KPCS Board President Ann Shoemaker, one of three members on the hiring committee, said they received wonderful responses from dozens of applicants, interviewing people from as far away as Alaska before choosing Stirrett as their new leader.
“I came into a culture that was established — 37 years for the food bank and 30 years for the senior center — and deeply rooted in the community,” Stirrett said.
KPCS currently has about 75 active volunteers, a high percentage of whom are seniors themselves.
“The first thing I noticed about the culture here is the humility, which is what attracted me to this place; it’s embedded in everything that happens here,” Stirrett said. “The problem with a culture heavy in humility is that if people don’t know you exist then they can’t help you.”
“Tracy helped us refine our vision and our mission,” Shoemaker said. “The board winnowed their strategic plan from 14 pages to only two. We worked and improved it over the years, but not everything was clearly measurable or even obtainable.”
A grant from The Angel Guild helped KPCS purchase a new food bank software system that allowed staff to keep much better track of how they serve the community.
“I think we all have assumptions about the food bank, but I learned within five days of being here that every single assumption I had was completely wrong,” Stirrett said. “Whatever image those terrible stereotypes bring, it doesn’t apply to a single person I’ve met.”
In August 2019, KPCS served 815 households on the KP and of those 44 percent were seniors, according to Stirrett. The number for seniors increased but remained constant for children with about 16 percent for youth and close to 3 percent for infants. Adults ages 19 to 54 represented 37 percent of those served.
“We need demographics, but if someone doesn’t want to tell us their name or where they live, we’re still going to feed them,” Stirrett said. “The numbers we had failed to include were people who want to stay anonymous, but just in the few months we’ve had the new software, we know we have 42 percent more households we’re serving.”
The addition of a refrigeration system in the “bread closet” — a walk-in pantry where anyone can help themselves to what they need — allows KPCS to offer complete nutrition from the closet, where only bread was available before. Stirrett said anybody can obtain dairy, fruits and vegetables, in addition to the monthly food baskets KPCS packs for families.
“What does it feel like the first time someone uses the food bank? What may have driven the need? In the end, it doesn’t matter,” Stirrett said. “If someone is hungry, we have food. Nobody on the Key Peninsula should be hungry.”
Annual surveys also informed KPCS how to improve its programs. Stirrett said as a result of the 75 surveys turned in last year, the senior center has more days of exercise classes, tai chi, and lunches that include more fruits and vegetables.
“They asked for speakers, so we’re having more people come with Q&As during lunch and hope for more speakers,” she said. “They asked for support, so we’re looking to offer an elder care support group scheduled for evenings, so working people can come.
“Growth in the senior center is up 24 percent over last year,” Stirrett said. “We’re seeing new people who had never participated here before. It’s exciting, we’re growing everywhere.”
“I love this community and am so happy to be here,” said longtime volunteer and employee Kyong Bertsch, who returned to the organization as an administrative assistant.
“Kyong is a bit of a social worker out there, working with anybody who walks in the door to help get them to the next step,” Stirrett said. “She knows everyone’s names and recognizes when somebody didn’t show up for lunch. She does all our accounting, she’s worked with difficult domestic violence cases, she is amazing.”
The focus of KPCS is to remove barriers that may prevent people from seeking help, according to Stirrett. “People are food insecure here; 815 households? That’s at least 2,000 people. Only a very small percentage of people who come here aren’t from the KP, but they come here from all over the Key Peninsula. The same is true for all the other food banks here. If you have a big family it takes all of them to make it work. We aren’t the only resource; all of us are serving them.
“How can we learn more? How can we let people that need help know that we might be able to provide it? I’m hoping people will share those stories with us,” she said.
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