The gift of time: A day in the life of a Community House Volunteer


Colleen Slater, KP News

Verna Barnesson’s volunteer work at Community House doesn’t officially begin until 9:30 a.m., but as usual, she’s knocking on the door soon after 9.

“I like to be here early,” she says, as she sets down her thermal cup of hot chocolate and removes her coat.

“This is my new cup,” she says, holding up the tall marbled blue container. “I’m always losing my cup, but I should be able to find this one.” She won it at Bingo the previous evening, and shows it off to other volunteers familiar with her ability to “lose” her usual mug.

Verna greets staff and volunteers by name. She has a contagious smile and laugh, which help set a pleasant atmosphere for the area.

Her first job is stuffing shelves with bakery goods in the front office. She swipes each label with a red or orange marker to show that it was a donation.

Monday through Friday, Don, Dave, Gary and Larry collect bread and baked items from FISH, Fred Meyer and QFC in Gig Harbor. Warren and Earle make a Saturday run. The bread, including French bread, sourdough rounds and pita pockets, are available to all visitors, whether food recipients, volunteers, seniors or others, when there is a plentiful supply. They may also select from the bakery shelves.

Verna began volunteering in September, reporting for duty Tuesday through Friday, 9 to 4, and sometimes staying later if needed.

Director Cristi Watson says Verna has put in more hours than any other current volunteer. “I’m a lifer,” Verna says with a grin. “I enjoy it.”

Verna, who was helped when she was down on her luck, feels good when people who have been recipients of food baskets can bring in donations. She has been volunteering long enough to see that happen here.

Warren and Debbie are already busy in the kitchen, preparing for the senior lunch. The tables are spread with red and green covers for the Christmas season.

“Homemade chicken noodle soup,” says chef Warren. “Everything homemade except the noodles.” He’s been cooking senior lunches for five years. Debbie has been his assistant for a year and a half.

Linda and Wally LeBlanc arrive to collect blankets, coats, cupcakes, cookies and beverages for the Longbranch Improvement Club Christmas party on Sunday. Verna runs around to open the downstairs door.

Shelves downstairs are full of assorted staple items, and an old chest freezer is stuffed with cookies. Food donations are sorted down here, and when the upstairs shelves get low, volunteers carry up boxes to fill them.

Some bags of donations, including canned goods and staples from the Salvation Army and QFC, are sorted and shelved upstairs. Items like cranberry sauce, pumpkin, evaporated milk and olives are set aside to be taken downstairs for Christmas baskets.

Odd items, such as soy drink mixes, are set out at one end of the counter as “freebies” for whoever wants them. One section of shelves holds staples for baking. Although flour and sugar are included in regular food baskets, cake mixes, spices, etc., are not. Those who like to bake may request these items.

Stephenie and Robbie are busy carrying and stocking while Verna greets clients. This is Robbie’s third day, and he plans to be a regular. Stephenie comes on Friday when her daughter can be watched by Grandma.

Today is commodities day, held second and third Fridays. On these days, only a bag of government staples will be given out rather than the regular food supplies. This is the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program, labeled TEFAP on the calendar on the back wall. Food includes raisins, canned fruit, pasta, rice and pudding. Clients may obtain one food basket and one bag of commodities per month.

Community House serves Pierce County from the Purdy Bridge west. Staff communicates with FISH in Gig Harbor and The Children’s Home Society in Vaughn in order to help all local residents in need of food supplies.

Linda Hubbard, food coordinator and office manager for 22 years, asks the volunteers to check the potatoes in a box in the dining room, and to rotate the canned goods as they are restocked.

Seniors begin coming in for lunch, sitting at their regular places at the long tables. Organist Dottie Luedke plays Christmas music in the background.

Wednesdays and Fridays are busier days when the lunch is served. Today the crowd is lighter, as several women, including Robbie’s mom, are enjoying a Cootiettes’ Christmas party in Vaughn.

The volunteers and several seniors line up to carry plates to the tables. Volunteers will eat when their lunch duty is finished.

Cristi picks a name on the guest list for the first donated door prize item. He selects a number from 1 through 28 for the next person. Tickets to Point Defiance Zoo are included, as are a few cartons of eggs.

Verna and other volunteers carry away plates, cups, and as people finish their meal, the decorations and table coverings are also removed.

The bread van has arrived at the back door. Immediately, a “chain gang” of willing hands, including seniors, transfers the bags and boxes from van, up the steps, and inside. A few are sorting off bakery goods for the front shelves and other items like chocolate milk and juices for whoever would like them.

Back in the front office, Verna sits for a moment with her dessert in front of her and kicks off her shoes. She used to bring her slippers for wearing inside, but took them home for a weekend and forgot to bring them back. She needs to put her shoes back on to carry some food downstairs.

Linda produces a pair of sturdy athletic shoes, which are a good fit for Verna. “Keep these here,” Linda tells her. Shoes are required. These will be good “running” shoes as Verna scurries up and down the stairs and ramps during her busy workday.

Verna is a good listener for those clients who need someone to talk to as they sign in, select doughnuts, and collect the commodity bag. She always has pleasant and encouraging words for visitors.

Volunteering for her is giving back to those who have helped her. “It’s not the same people, but I can pass it on,” she says.

She checks that all refrigerated food is put away, doors are locked and the leftover bread is set out before she heads home with a friend. Verna is giving back generously with her time, energy and joyful spirit.