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by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
Olney resident Marti English recounts a time may years ago when her family experienced financial hardship.
“I was not sure where our food would come from, but then my aunt sent us a check,” she said. “It was God’s gift and made me realize how easy it is to get into a jam. It can happen to anyone, and it is now my turn to pass it on.”
English and many others continue to “pass it on” as volunteers for the local non-profit Olney HELP
The organization, formerly known as Olney Fish, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
It provides short-term emergency food and financial assistance, as well as referral services, to individuals and families living in Olney, Ashton, Sandy Spring, Brookeville and Brinklow.
Olney HELP Executive Director Jacqui Vok thinks the milestone is one to be proud of.
“Not many all-volunteer, 501(c)3 organizations stick around that long,” she said. “We are very fortunate to have such a generous community.”
Vok said that while the organization has not kept the best records, they know that the organization was started as Olney Fish by a group of Quakers and other church members, who donated funds and recruited volunteers. It began serving people in in 1969.
In the past, she said, the organization also provided additional services such as transportation and medical equipment.
In 2011, the organization received a letter from Mary Stevens, who said she was involved from the start. She was living on the Eastern Shore at the time of the letter, which recounted the early days of the organization.
Stevens wrote that she was at her Williamsburg Village home caring for a newly adopted baby in June 1968 when her doorbell rang.
The woman introduced herself as Mary Gordon and said she was looking for volunteers for a new organization. Stevens became involved and gathered donations from neighbors and schools.
A few years later, Gordon and her husband, Frank, an ophthalmologist, had an opportunity to travel to London for a research opportunity.
Mary Stevens said Mary Gordon asked her to “please keep the organization going,” and she promised her she would.
“So, Mary and Frank Left, taking a freighter ship for the experience of it,” Stevens wrote. “Unfortunately, they had to abandon ship at some point and their life boat capsized. They were lost forever. It was a devasting loss for the community.”
The Gordons are buried at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
When Stevens sent the letter in 2011, she said she had wondered if the group was still functioning.
“Mary Gordon would be so proud,” she wrote.
Vok provided a copy of an old Reader’s Digest article, published possibly in 1969, entitled “A Friendly Neighbor Called Fish.”
According to the article, the Fish movement began in an Anglican church in England in 1961, using the fish symbol that was secretly used by early Christians to identify themselves to one another.
“It was born in a burst of conviction by both pastor and people that one of the prime causes of our time’s malaise has been the rapid decline of old-fashioned neighborliness — of caring about others,” the article states.
The idea had spread across the Atlantic to West Springfield Mass., and then to more than 100 communities across the United States at the time the article was published.
Stevens said at one point a religious leader said he would not endorse a Christian organization, so the name was changed to Olney HELP.
Vok said there are other HELP organizations within Montgomery County, including groups in Rockville, Bethesda, Gaithersburg and Damascus. Although they were started for the same reason and operate in similar ways, they are not intertwined, but leaders of the various HELP organizations meet periodically to share ideas.
Neighbors helping neighbors
English began working with the organization 30 year ago.
“I really am not sure how I got involved, but it was probably through my church [Oakdale], which collected food for Fish,” she said. “I always liked to help people in need.”
Her current volunteer duties with Olney HELP involve answering the phone one day a month. Those in need of food or financial help call the same phone number that the organization has had all 50 years to leave a message. Volunteer “officers of the day” retrieve the messages and respond to the callers.
English said there are many more needs than resources.
“It is amazing in our area how many big needs there are,” she said. “With the government shutdown, people are already concerned about their rent and expenses. People get stuck in unfortunate situations — sometimes due to poor planning and sometimes just because life happens.”
In 2018, Olney HELP filled 645 orders for emergency food, serving 1,338 adults and 871 children, Vok said. Forty-six of those were families new to Olney HELP. Those numbers do not include Thanksgiving or holiday baskets provided to local families in need.
Olney HELP also provided emergency financial assistance to 181 households/families (302 adults and 285 children), with 56 of those being families new to Olney HELP.
Limited financial aid to prevent foreclosure or eviction, to help prevent cut-off of utilities, and to purchase essential medications is provided once a year.
“More and more people are struggling trying to make ends meet. You never know when you could be next,” Vok said. “One fellow who used to be one of our volunteers called to request help. He left an incredibly humbling message. That is why we do what we do.”
When people call from outside the boundaries served by the organization, or when Olney HELP cannot fill a request, referrals are provided to other agencies or organizations that might be able to help them.
Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg helps fill the gaps, as do many area churches.
“Montgomery County also has a Food Insecurity Program,” Vok said. “It is very cool to be in a county that is proactive in helping people.”
Fueled by volunteers
The organization is run solely by volunteers and always has been.
Several of the 65 volunteers, like English, have been involved for decades.
Marilyn Simonds retired last year, but was involved for 30 years, 14 as the organization’s director. Ruth Filbert, pantry manager, has been involved for 28 years. Lee Arthur (30 years) and Suzanne Browning (22 years) started the financial program.
Volunteers serve as officers of the day, shop for food, stock pantry shelves, serve as financial counselors and deliver food.
Vok said most of the work takes place behind the scenes.
“We provide the hard labor, but it is the community that supplies most of the financial and food donations,” she said. “We couldn’t do it without them.”
Vok said move volunteers are always needed.
Keeping the shelves stocked
Emergency food assistance offers a three-day food supply that includes both fresh and non-perishable food to individuals and families requesting help.
Much of the food is donated by churches, scout troops, individuals and others.
About two-thirds of the funding comes from grants and foundations, and the remaining one-third comes from the community.
“Unfortunately, the smallest percentage comes from the local businesses in the community,” Vok said. “We joined the Olney Chamber of Commerce to meet more folks and to let them know about us.”
Financial support is always a concern, since grants, donations and tax codes change from year to year and can impact donations.
“We are trying to promote to our community to ‘give local’ like the Chamber of Commerce is promoting ‘shop local,’” she said. “This helps keep donated funds in our own community to help improve the lives of our fellow neighbors in need.”
Food donations are stored in a 14-foot by 40-foot climate-controlled pantry, which opened in 2017.
Due to security concerns, the location of the pantry is kept confidential. No food is distributed from the pantry; Olney HELP volunteers deliver it to clients.
For 45 years, Olney HELP operated its food pantry out of a garage on the Marian Fathers property on Georgia Avenue until the property was sold for development. For nearly two years, while searching for a new pantry location, the organization stored its food in the homes of volunteers.
When a location was secured, the organization was able to raise funds for the new pantry without having to take money from their operating fund.
“That pantry will last us for years to come,” Vok said.
Celebrating a half-century
Events are planned each month throughout the year to commemorate the anniversary.
They include serving breakfast with the United Methodist Men at Oakdale Church on March 2, participating in Olney Days April 27-28, working with local swim teams for food collection in June, participating in National Night out in August, participating in Olney Community Night in October and participating in the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service in November.
More events could be planned.
For more information on how to become involved with Olney HELP, or to make a food or financial donation, go to www.olneyhelp.org.
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