Joe and Judy Nesbit spent Tuesday afternoon taking stock of hundreds of food items filling the shelves of the Seventh-day Adventist Community Center in Longview.
The couple are preparing for the center’s last food distribution day Dec. 31 before closing the program because they can’t find anyone to replace their volunteer effort. It is a problem nonprofits here and across the nation are facing: They are finding it hard to replace the corps of aging volunteers who make their work possible.
The Nesbits, both in their early 70s, are retiring from the leadership position to focus on their medical needs. After searching for two years, the church was unable to find replacements, so it is withdrawing from the FISH of Cowlitz County food program.
“It feels bad that it couldn’t keep going, because there is such a need,” Judy Nesbit said.
FISH is an all-volunteer nonprofit that helps people with financial emergencies and distributes food five days a week through 17 churches. FISH board member Bob Gaston estimated the program will serve about 25,000 people this year, 2,000 more than in 2017.
Gaston said while a couple of other churches have cut back their involvement in the FISH food program, he hasn’t seen one quit until now. The organization’s board is concerned about finding replacements for aging volunteers across its programs, he said.
Kathy Bates, operations director at Lower Columbia CAP, said service clubs and agencies across Cowlitz County and the United States are seeing a similar trend.
“Volunteers are the lifeblood of almost all of us, and they are indeed getting harder to find,” Bates said.
The rate of U.S. adults who volunteer decreased from 26.8 percent in 2011 to 24.9 percent in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The 2015 survey (the most recent data available from the agency) found people 65 years old and older were more likely to volunteer than other age groups.
Bates said many older volunteers are “aging out” with no one lining up to take their places. The Seventh-day Adventist food bank’s 12-person crew was mostly people in their 80s, Nesbit said. The next generation hasn’t shown the same “compulsion and interest” in volunteering, she said.
Nesbit encourages anyone with time on their hands to reach out to any organization for which they may be interested in volunteering.
Natalie Lassen, FISH food coordinator, said although individual volunteers are appreciated, the organization isn’t set up to deploy them on a case-by-case basis. They need another church to fill the gap in the food program left by the Seventh-day Adventist Community Center, she said.
“We’re really so thankful for their service,” Lassen said. “We’re just looking to find a new match to help the success continue.”
Lassen said churches choose how often they can participate. Some smaller churches pitch in once every other month, while the larger congregations give out food multiple days a week.
Although food was distributed at the Seventh-day Adventist center once a month, Nesbit said she and her husband often worked in the church’s food bank multiple days a week, organizing, shopping for food, record keeping and putting together the list of food to be given out in each month’s box.
“There are a lot of details, but after 15 years, it just went like clockwork,” she said.
Nesbit said she didn’t see the number of boxes they gave out increase over the years because the church had a set quota of around 40. But the number of people in each household increased as generations moved in together, she said.
Longview resident Laura Shryock said she has gotten food 10 times this year from the Seventh-day Adventist center. She said she understands why the program is closing, but is sad to see it go.
“It breaks my heart. Not only are they good and caring people, they give out a lot of food,” Shryock said.
Joe Nesbit said the volunteers also gave encouragement to people who came in for food. He and Judy said many became friends.
“The people who would come through the door and come to you for a hug, or ask for prayer or tell you about their latest baby or grandchild, that’s what we will miss,” she said.