Ilse Stollar has been spending most every Monday for the last 17 years putting together food packages at Helpline House, so Monday’s Thanksgiving rush at the nonprofit agency’s food bank was nothing new for her. Though, it was special as it always is when “her” Hyla Middle School kids are there to offer a helping hand.
Ilse and the eight different kids that Hyla teacher Chris Johnson has been bringing to Helpline each Monday for 10 years were just part of the many volunteers who this week have been preparing some 100 pounds of a Thanksgiving meal for each of the more than 200 needy island families who signed up for the donated holiday food.
More than 40 volunteers worked six hours last Saturday to unload and sort thousands of pounds of donated food that was dropped off at Helpline House. The food was collected by many island groups, including scout troops, schools, neighborhoods, businesses, and caring individuals who pitched in like they do every year.
It’s a labor of love for the more than 50 regular volunteers who work four-hour shifts at Helpline House – none more than Ilse. Born in Germany before World War II, she fled East Germany in 1945 and finally left Europe behind in 1954 when she immigrated to the United States .
“I have been in the depths during my life,” she said. “When I immigrate (settling in California), I always take jobs where I help people. I’ve always been very busy all the time. I worked in a middle school library for many years and when I retire here I felt just this hole, like I wasn’t good for anything any more. So I came to this place and decided to help people. Now, I keep coming back because it gives me structure.” And more.
She has made friendships with many staff members and volunteers. “This is a tremendous group of people,” she said. “They all know how important the job is. It can hurt. Sometimes you see very difficult situations for people. And more and more people need help. Maybe it will get better with our new president.”
She considers Bainbridge special.
“The island has the most tremendous group of people…so giving here,” she said. “It warms your heart to see such willingness to help others. And people seem to be even more caring to each other despite the rough times.”
Her favorites are the middle schoolers she gets to supervise for an hour every Monday. Johnson, a math teacher at Hyla, replaced an elective hour of physical education at the private school with an hour of community service. Which means nearly every student at the school during the last 10 years has volunteered at Helpline House.
“The kids break down boxes, stock shelves, sort food,” she said. “Ilse sets up different activities for them. They are very positive and helpful and creative at that age. …It’s behind-the-scenes work and they don’t have lot of interaction with clients there, but we talk about what’s going on. Some tell me they didn’t know there were homeless people on Bainbridge. It’s an eye-opener at first.”
Part of the learning process, Johnson said, is the realization that community service is not just about Thanksgiving and Christmas. It should be year around. To that end, many have spent summers returning to Helpline House. As Johnson says, it feels good ”to make a difference.”