By Chris Hendrickson, Monitor
She single-handedly established two food banks in the Sky Valley, which feed between 500 and 600 people per month. And that only begins to address the extent of her outreach work.
Gold Bar resident Kelly Clifton has been working steadily for the past several years to provide for families in need, regardless of what the need is. In addition to the food banks, the married mother of three also coordinates help for families during the holidays, as well as during back-to-school season in the fall. Her nonprofit organization, Sky Valley Community Outreach, seeks to provide an all-inclusive range of items from couches to shoes to macaroni-and-cheese.
It started with food. And kids.
“I’ve always had an interest in helping to feed people,” said Clifton.
A Sultan Food Bank board member and volunteer, in 2009 Clifton also began performing outreach at Gold Bar Elementary where her daughter was a student. Recognizing the need, she started with an afterschool club program, which was a method of providing kids with constructive afterschool activities. In conjunction with that, she also started a program called “Packs for Kids,” which consisted of sending food home with kids on weekends.
When Sultan’s food bank, which had been struggling financially, shifted over to the Volunteers of America in early 2011, Clifton ran it during the transition. When food bank services were eventually cut from once a week to twice a month, she was concerned. Clifton recognized that the need for food assistance in the valley extended far beyond what was being provided.
“It was just kind of weighing on me,” said Clifton.
Through networking and organization, Clifton joined forces with several local churches, and when the opportunity arose for her to be able to obtain “rescued food” directly from stores, Clifton decided to take the initiative and focus on increasing services in the valley. Working in partnership with the Mountainview Christian Fellowship in Sultan, Clifton started a weekly food bank that operates from 3 to 3:30 p.m. every Sunday.
“It’s open to anyone,” said Clifton. “If you say you’ve got a need… Come and get it.”
Clifton doesn’t require identification or copies of recent power bills, as is sometimes required at other food banks. She just asks that people tell her their name, how many people they are feeding, and what city they live in.
When she noticed that there were a lot of folks from Gold Bar, she decided to do something about it by starting another food bank.
She approached Mountain Valley Chapel, located on Lewis Street in Gold Bar, and told them what she wanted to do. They agreed to host the food bank from 3 to 3:30 p.m., on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. The church also committed to overseeing the food bank’s operation.
“Mountain Valley is awesome, they run it themselves,” said Clifton. “All I do is procure the food for them.”
The food comes from several different sources including Whole Foods, Safeway, a bakery outlet in Everett and more.
“We never know what we’re going to get,” said Clifton. “Miraculously we always seem to have just enough.”
The Rock Church in Monroe works with Clifton, helping her to pick up food. She is always on the lookout for additional food sources, particularly for fresh produce, which is getting increasingly difficult to come by. Rounding everything up is a time-consuming and labor intensive process. There are no shortcuts. Clifton drives around from place to place and picks it up, a bit at a time. Clifton refers to herself as a “gleaner.” She occasionally gets assistance from other volunteers during the procurement process.
Clifton’s multi-faceted organization features several chapters, each of which focuses on a specific niche. “Operation Full Bellies,” which evolved from “Packs for Kids,” is her longest-running program. Clifton continues to provide supplemental food for children every weekend as well as throughout the summer. In its sixth year of operation, the program provides about 500 meals per month for kids.
“Sky Valley Food Rescue” is the umbrella under which she operates the food banks, and through “Sky Valley Angels” she works to provide clothing, diapers, backpacks, school supplies, furniture and anything else that might come up.
“We even found a wood stove, about a month ago, for a family that needed a wood stove,” said Clifton.
With her holiday project, “Santa’s Boutique,” Clifton has helped provide Christmas gifts to families in Skykomish for two years in a row. Held in December, the event took place in the Maloney General Store. Clifton obtained a wide variety of donations including clothes, shoes, toys and other miscellaneous stocking stuffers. The merchandise was set up, and parents were allowed to “shop” for their kids.
All items were free of charge. She even featured an area for the kids to pick out gifts for their parents.
“They loved it,” said Clifton. “It made them feel good to pick something out, and then we had a little wrapping station where they could wrap the gifts for their parents.”
“Santa’s Boutique” has served around 50 Skykomish kids each of the years it’s been in operation.
She also has a “Secret Santa” program that she operates on a referral basis geared towards older kids ages 13 to 18. There is a bit of a service void for that age group, Clifton explained. Some organizations will not serve children over the age of 12.
Clifton’s specialized programs, including “Secret Santa” and “Operation Full Bellies” operate on referrals. She explained that occasionally she’ll get a referral from friends or family members calling on someone else’s behalf, because they know that the person they are calling about might not otherwise seek assistance. If it’s necessary, Clifton will anonymously donate items to these families.
Clifton’s fear is that the needs of the valley will only continue to rise, particularly with the recent shutdown of Sultan Community United Methodist Church’s Loaves and Fishes dinner; along with the temporary shutdown of Tabitha House, a free clothing bank also located in United Methodist Church.
“These are going to have big impacts on this community,” said Clifton.
What’s next for Clifton? In addition to obtaining additional volunteer support and more sources of food, especially fresh produce, perhaps her biggest goal for 2014 is acquiring some sort of space.
“A space where we can actually hold donations, so when people have a need, we’ve got it,” said Clifton.
Currently, if a large donation is offered, such as an appliance or piece of furniture, unless there is an immediate need for the item, Clifton has to let it go since it is not feasible for her to store items at her home.
Her ideal space would be in a centralized location, preferably Sultan, and would include kitchen facilities out of which she could potentially coordinate a soup kitchen. Also, kitchen space would allow for the convenient storage of food bank inventory. Clifton hopes that somebody with a vacant commercial space seeking a tax write-off might be inclined to help her grow her organization.
Above all else, she hopes to continue to serve the community and feels that adopting a permanent space will enable her to do more. She imagines being able to simply store items like diapers, kids’ shoes, coats and blankets, so that they could be readily available to someone with a need.
“This is my year,” said Clifton. “I need help.”
“We can more than meet the needs of people because we have so much excess in our society,” she continued. “It’s just about moving it to the place that it needs to be.”
Clifton has lived in Gold Bar for 11 years, and feels like she is exactly where she is supposed to be.
“I’ve been planted here in the valley,” said Clifton. “I’m here for a reason, and this is what I’m meant to do.”
Clifton stated that she has been exceptionally grateful to the local churches, as well as other nonprofits who have supported her efforts and shared her vision of serving families in need.
“This valley, it can just break your heart sometimes,” said Clifton. “To see the needs and to know that we are losing resources rather than gaining them.”
Local residents consider Clifton to be one of the valley’s unsung heroes.
“Kelly is one of the most gracious public servants I know. She doesn’t seek out credit or recognition for herself; it’s all about the work and supporting those less fortunate in our Sky Valley community,” said Sultan resident Elizabeth Emmons. “Her compassion and can-do approach to life and public service make her a fantastic role model.”
Both Sky Valley Community Outreach food banks are open to anyone. Mountainview Christian Fellowship is located at 211 6th St. in Sultan, and Mountain Valley Chapel is located at 230 Lewis St. in Gold Bar.
To inquire about Clifton’s other programs email her at: Kelly@svcoutreach.org, or visit her website http://svcoutreach.org/home.html.
“I’m sure there are thousands of people who have benefited from her efforts,” said Emmons. “Kelly is a true Sky Valley superstar.”
Clifton received the Sky Valley Random Acts of Kindness Award in 2011, as well as Gold Bar’s Volunteer of the Year Award in 2012.
Donations made to Sky Valley Community Outreach are tax-deductible and can be made directly to Clifton; contact her via email for specific instructions. The Rock Church in Monroe also accepts donations on her behalf. Clifton can be contacted via Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/SkyValleyCommunityOutreach.