Counting our Blessings in Clarke…

By: Tammy Lanham

With Thanksgiving reflections still fresh in my mind, the season of Advent brings a feeling of anticipation and joy in Spirit that I regularly see reflected in the actions of those who live in our community.  In many places this feeling of good will is shared mostly around Christmas, but in Clarke County neighbors actually help neighbors all year long!

A few weeks ago I read a Clarke Daily News article and someone posted a comment requesting more good news.   I wholeheartedly agree! So I got to thinking about ways to share our wonderful community spirit….

Clarke County definitely has a reputation for taking care of its own, without staffed facilities and with very little funding…. Did you know that community volunteers have been quietly at work as a source of strength and support to the troubled and needy for over forty years!   FISH (For Immediate Sympathic Help) is an organization which coordinates local efforts of the Ruritans, churches, scouts and schools in helping our neighbors with food and clothing needs during difficult times. FISH also provides direct financial assistance with essential needs such as rent and other basics of life.  The fish symbol represents Christ, and may well be one of the most familiar of Christian symbols. The first letters of the five Greek words for “Jesus Christ”, “Son of God”, and “Savior”, form the Greek word for FISH.

When FISH began…
A group of citizens banded together back in October 1969 as a last resort option when family members and social services were not able to help those in need.  With and through the local churches, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Department of Social Services, and the generous gifts of county citizens, FISH has now brought people and families through countless crises and situations over all these years.

Nowadays Counselors assess each situation to assist residents with a one-time contribution that can be applied toward rent, utility or medical bills.  The counselors help clients (along with social services ) to prioritize household expenses and find a way for them to get back on their feet.  Officers meet four times a year to discuss ways FISH can coordinate ongoing support for those in need within the Clarke Community.  As the organization’s President, Rev. Ken Patrick is interested in long-term planning, which includes finding an appropriate facility to serve as a “FISH Outreach Center”. (A centrally located space with room for both clothing and food banks would be ideal.)  With the vision of Board members Mary Velleux, Bonnie Snyder, Mike Malucci and support of over 70 volunteers that manage the FISH organization, community members of all ages and walks of life work all year to serve their neighbors, making a difference in our small community.

FISH Volunteers include professional counselors, coordinators, secretarial assistants, and pastors.  Community members drop off clothing and food, organize food drives, staff the clothing bank on Saturdays, sort clothing on Fridays, volunteer to make phone calls and coordinate drivers for citizens who need rides to medical appointments all year long.

Food and Clothing Needs:
Right now it’s not just the homeless and those with addictions who are suffering, middle class families and retired citizens also need our help.  And it’s not just around the holidays either.  In Clarke there are 2,100 students in school and 12% are on the free/reduced lunch program.  Many children are in need.

A little teeny “house” serves as the FISH Clothing Closet, and a tiny space in the back of Berryville’s Social Services building on 311 East Main Street serves as the FISH food pantry. This past summer the Food pantry supply was lower than it had been in 11 years.   FISH ran out of soup and tuna fish for the first time ever!   Once items are donated, volunteers sort food items, check expiration dates and organize the shelves. FISH also purchases the perishable foods including bread and frozen meats (there are two freezers in the pantry). Social services staff distributes the food to qualifying families who come in and request assistance.” The closet usually needs basic canned items like soup, peanut butter and tuna fish, but monetary donations also help defray the $250 cost per month that is spent on staples like poultry and beef.

Leading into the Holiday season, FISH organized a Clarke County-wide food drive that has unified efforts of many groups, stores, churches and agencies in our community.  The collected non-perishable food items are being stored at a new FISH Food Bank located in the basement of Marvin Chapel United Methodist Church., and distributed to those in need throughout the winter months through our local food pantries.   Watch in our community for information about this new ministry of FISH!

The FISH Clothing closet is open Saturdays from 9 to 12 (for drop off items and for shoppers) at the Millwood location on 340 (located next to the Old Chapel at intersection of 340 and 255, Bishop Meade Road).  The three small rooms in the tiny house do not have air conditioning or much of an overhead cost-wise, but the space is cramped and volunteers bundle off-season clothing to store in an outside building twice a year.

When volunteering at the clothing closet, one becomes even more deeply connected to the community.  This past summer members of Boy Scout Troop worked there for several Saturdays.  Shoppers were regularly waiting at the door before 9:00 a.m. and all of the customers were friendly and polite.  Families with many children needed clothes, wives needed work shirts for their husbands and some citizens just came out to support each other, dropping off items and purchasing items for neighbors in need. Several customers offered to pay for others behind them in line, and nearly everybody offered an extra dollar as a contribution.

It was amazing how one person’s old items became another’s treasure.  God’s timing was perfect, again and again.  Educational game system with no charger – crock pot without a lid – newborn boys’ clothing and attire for an interview– all went home the day they came in with a customer who could use that very item!  Local church members take turns staffing the clothing bank each month and also assist with the canned food drives.  Boy Scouts from Troop 34 helped with food distribution, volunteered at the clothes closet and researched the history of Berryville and Clarke County as they worked on a Community Service badge last spring. Valuable lessons were learned.

Our Community in Action
We are all truly blessed to be part of such a wonderful community.

In September the Hout 4-H Club presented FISH with a check for $300 to help out the food bank (as reported in the Clarke Daily News):

In October the Horseshoe Curve Benevolent Association’s Fall Food Drive was a great success, and the Helping Hands of Clarke County raised $279.32 with the help of a witch who trick and treated for FISH food bank donations.

Marvin Chapel hosted a lunch and bake sale at Enders Fire Hall in October and also a WONDERFUL Hymn Sing in November – Local church choirs, soloists, ensembles and instrumentalists shared an amazing variety of inspirational music for a captivated audience.  All proceeds were given to the FISH organization, and our community bond was made even stronger.  For more information call FISH at (540)955-1823 or mail contributions to P.O. Box 1154, Berryville, VA 22611

Recognizing the Gifts of many
A special thanks to Marvin Chapel’s Choir Director Mary Nagelvoort for organizing the annual FISH Hymn Sing, and to ALL of the dedicated volunteers in our community who work through the schools, churches, scout troops, 4H Clubs, Fire Departments and other local organizations (like the Ruritans, VFW and Horshoe Curve Benevolent Association to name a few) to help our neighbors all year long. You never know when you may be the one in need, but in Clarke County you are never alone.

May you all have a blessed Christmas and a safe and happy New Year!