People browse amongst donated toys, with boxes of food awaiting distribution in the foreground.
PHOTO BY COLBY HESS
People browse amongst donated toys, with boxes of food awaiting distribution in the foreground. PHOTO BY COLBY HESS

‘Twas the week before Christmas with a bite to the air, and though stockings were hung, the cupboards were bare.

For over 600 local families, this is too familiar a situation.

“People are shocked when they hear those numbers,” said Alana Smith, director of the Eatonville Family Agency. “It’s always a shock to see all the need that Eatonville has.”

For a town with a population of just under 3,000, according to the last census count, and an average of close to 1,000 people per month receiving nutritional aid, that equates to nearly a third of area residents who struggle to put food on the table. And it’s not just seniors on fixed incomes or those looking for work that require assistance.

“Families at or just above minimum wage just can’t make it,” said Smith.

The area’s lack of public transportation, high-paying jobs and affordable housing are all factors adding to the challenge faced by families and individuals trying to support their everyday needs, Smith explained.

That’s where the Eatonville Family Agency steps in.

Its stated mission is “to serve individuals, families and senior citizens in need” and “to reduce the impact of poverty through a variety of social services and community programs.”

In addition to the food bank it operates four days a week and a once-a-week clothing bank, the nonprofit includes programs such as a “backpack program” to provide food to hungry children on weekends throughout the school year. The Eatonville Family Agency also provides information, referrals and job training. And while Eatonville does not have a homeless shelter, the family agency does offer food, hot showers and rides into the city.

The agency is funded entirely by donations as well as grants from local, state and federal agencies plus various private charitable foundations.

Smith described the grant writing process as being the most time-consuming as well as stressful aspect of her job.

“It seems to get harder every year, with more people fighting for less dollars,” she said. “It’s a lot of paperwork.”

While the countywide Emergency Food Network provides a significant amount of food, the agency still relies heavily on local contributions to keep its operation running. These include “grocery rescue” programs, with Fred Meyer and Safeway stores in nearby Bethel and Graham donating unused food nearing its expiration date or otherwise unable to be sold. It also includes food drives led by a number of local churches, schools and community groups, along with financial donations given by groups and individuals on either a one-time or recurring basis.

In addition to Smith, the agency has eight part-time paid employees and a monthly average of 30 to 35 volunteers doing everything from boxing up food to helping with paperwork.

“I have an awesome team.  The staff is amazing,” Smith said. “(But) we’re always looking for volunteers.”

The food bank and other programs run year-round, but the service really ramps up around the holidays when in addition to food and clothing, toys are distributed so that no child has to wake up on Christmas morning to an empty stocking. Toys are provided by the “Toys for Tots” program as well as by different toy drives held by all of the schools in the district.

At a recent morning distribution held at the agency’s base of operations in the Eatonville Community Center, boxes of food were stacked almost to the ceiling and dozens of brightly colored toys were piled on long tables.

People lined up at the door, taking numbers and waiting their turn, to select from among the goods. The number of toys and the quantity of groceries handed out is determined by each family’s size. Each family is eligible for food aid twice a month.

Despite the many challenges and occasional stresses she faces in trying to help so many people with only limited resources at her disposal, Smith described of rewarding it was “to be able to help these people, to give them a hand up with resources so they don’t have to worry about basic needs.”

She also expressed her deep gratitude to everyone who contributes to make it happen. In particular she thanked the Town of Eatonville for providing the facility and its utilities free of charge, and the countless people who donate time, money, and materials to help those in need.

“It might be a small town but it’s a big operation,” she said. “It takes a lot of folks to feed this many people.”

For further information on how to donate or volunteer, contact the Eatonville Family Agency by phone at (360) 832-6805 or visit its website at www.eatonvillefamilyagency.org.