Operation Full Bellies on the go

Nonprofit keeping children fed throughout the week

Kelly Sullivan

Often the volunteers executing Operation Full Bellies either know, have or are a child who is fed through the program.

Sultan resident Pam Steadman’s children are a few who receive the six meals and four snacks allotted to each recipient every week. She has worked with director Kelly Clifton for nearly four years, so she can give back to the people who have helped her through so much.

“Whatever she needs, I am there,” Steadman said.

Lately the mother of four has been delivering the prepackaged food. She usually makes the drop offs after school lets out, so her kids can join her. She wants them to see what it actually takes to make sure they don’t go hungry, and it’s turned out they love the endeavor.

About four years ago, Steadman and her family sold almost everything they owned. They were facing homelessness on the East Coast. Her mother lives in Sultan, so they put what they had left in a jeep and drove across the country to live with her until they could get back on their feet.

Steadman’s neighbor Meg Helphrey was her first stop early Wednesday afternoon. She recently became a single mother, and said the service “has been a savior.” Her kids run to the door as soon as they know their bags have arrived, to haul in the delivery.

Next is an apartment complex in the east part of Sultan where a community of elderly residents live. Steadman said there are only nine seniors who participate in the program. She talks animatedly about each client and praises their kindness before knocking on each door. Everyone is greeted as an old friend.

Steadman said she loves people, which is why she admires Clifton and the work she is doing in the Sky Valley. She said she sees the director’s heart for service.

Operation Full Bellies started out in the Gold Bar resident’s garage around 2009, Clifton said. She had been organizing gatherings for youth, so they would have a safe place to go after school. She began to notice many would often be in need of a meal; she soon realized they weren’t just hungry during the week.

In less than a decade, the number of empty stomachs Clifton ensures are full each week has grown from a handful to 154. Those children live anywhere from Sultan to Skykomish, and are fed year round. That is 900 meals every week, or roughly 48,000 each year, she said.

“It’s quite a task,” she said. “It takes quite a few people to come together to make it happen.”

The program is now headquartered on Main Street. A few years ago she moved operations into a larger space closer to Sultan River, but had to relocate up the road to avoid the flood zone. The unit’s massive back room is packed full of purchased and donated fare.

Clifton gestures toward the stacks of boxes and said the stockpile rotates out very quickly. In all the years Full Bellies has been feeding kids, the program has never missed a week. Reserves have dwindled to concerning levels in the past, Clifton said.

In those moments she reaches out to the many community partners ready and willing to assist. That includes local congregations, businesses, and the staff and students at the Sultan School District.

Last spring Sherry Knox’s American Sign Language students made space for the more than 14,000 prepared food items they counted in their classroom at Sultan High School. Clifton said they actually miscalculated and the total was much higher — their annual contributions have grown every year.

Senior Julia Baird, who participated in the 2017 student-run food drive, secured 569 items, the fourth highest amount collected this year. She was excited to be a part of the event because she received meals from Full Bellies years ago.

“I looked forward to this food every weekend,” she said.

The Hungry Hearts Foundation, a Lake Stevens-based nonprofit, has come on board this year to help with financial assistance, and Clifton has worked with California-based CedarWood International Food Bank, which has a Mountlake Terrace office, for years to pool resources and purchase food in bulk. Occasionally a community member will walk in the front door and drop off a much-needed donation, she said.

“We always somehow have enough,” Clifton said. “There were times where I had to go into my own cupboard, but that was years ago.”

This year she plans for a little more growth. The big goal for 2018 is to build a strong foundation for the children already receiving food. She said she hopes to reduce those experiences of uncertainty.

The new year has already seen a few other notable changes. Clifton revised the name of her umbrella nonprofit Full Bellies functions under — Sky Valley Community Outreach is now Operation Sky Valley. A new website launched recently with more information on the organizations various programs.

Steadman also helps Clifton pull off Santa’s Boutique during the holiday season in Skykomish, where collected toy donations are set up so that parents who can’t afford presents can shop for their kids. The nonprofit also hosts annual back-to-school fairs for students to pickup necessities, and the Sky Valley Food Rescue connects families with items stores would otherwise throw out.

Clifton said the need is huge, and realistically knows her programs can only make a dent in the demand. She said she wanted to bridge the gap between those who have an abundance, and those who don’t.

Last Wednesday morning Elisa Johnson and four of her children were working to package up delivery items in the front room on Main Street. She said they got involved this fall after hearing about Operation Full Bellies through their church.

It immediately struck the family as a program they wanted to support. Johnson said it has helped them learn teamwork and organization skills. She also wanted her kids to see how their time could be one of the best resources they have to offer.

Tannion Johnson said he knows some of the children who are brought food each week. He and his siblings want to reach out to those who are in need, and can imagine how tough it would be to be a parent who couldn’t feed their child or a child who was hungry.

“We are very blessed to be cared for,” Johnson said. 


Photo by Kelly Sullivan: Pam Steadman drops off Operation Full Bellies meals to two young clients in Sultan on Wednesday, Jan. 17. She has worked with the nonprofit for four years. Pam Steadman drops off Operation Full Bellies meals to her neighbor Meg Helphrey in Sultan on Wednesday, Jan. 17. Elisa Johnson and her children volunteer with Operation Full Bellies once a week in Sultan.


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