FISH fills a need in greater Williamsburg

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

The clothes closet at FISH feels like a small department store.

Pounds of donated clothing are washed, sized, mended.

There's a corner for housewares, sections for jewelry or hats and shelves lined with shoes.

"It takes many hands to make, and a lot of love," said Billie Johnston, volunteer coordinator of the closet.

And it's amazing to see the expressions on faces when visitors walk through the door, she said.

At FISH, the little things go a long way, 40 years in fact.

They compose a web of giving continually, which centers around the actions of six individuals who met in the fall of 1975 and spins outward to FISH's network of nearly 360 volunteers who serve Greater Williamsburg.

Since its founding, FISH has seen exponential growth in both the area's need for assistance and the number of people willing to volunteer.

Simple beginnings

In 1969, Ling Ngo happened upon a Readers Digest article "A Friendly Neighbor Called Fish," reported on the grassroots volunteer ministry of the Rev. Derek Eastman, in England.

It jolted her like lightning.

She had just immigrated to the United States from the Philippines and thought: "I'm in a new place. I want to be useful."

The desire spread among six members of St. Bede's Catholic Church including Ngo, Marian Bennett, Nancy Lubrano, Sherry Welter and Sister Nancy Lydon. Those members helped form Williamsburg's FISH ministry, just as others across the country formed similar ministries inspired by the Readers Digest article.

FISH began with no central location, and the volunteers - mostly young mothers - took turns responding to phone calls.

At first, the volunteers pored through personal closets and pantries, responding to requests for assistance. They found shelter and provided transportation on their own.

"Neighbors helping neighbors," Lubrano said. That was the goal.

Soon, the jolt of lightning Ngo felt spread from church to church, person to person.

In the 1980s, FISH found more permanent locations within local churches, which joined with the volunteer efforts.

FISH then formed a covenant with Ecumenical Outreach Ministries in 1982 and centralized its efforts with a move into the Historic Triangle Community Services Center in 1994.

The organization changed as it expanded in size and demand. It ended transportation services and now required a referral from a Community Services Coalition agency.

But after 40 years, FISH still remains volunteer-driven, supported fully by donations from the local community.

"It's a really giving community," Lubrano said.

"It isn't our work, it's his," said Bennett, referring to God.

The nonprofit provides food, hygiene products, clothing and housewares to families and individuals experiencing crisis situations within James City County, Williamsburg and Northern York County, said Don Butts, president of the FISH board of directors.

A stopgap

Bill Unaitis has seen FISH grow during his eight years with Community Services Coalition.

"That's good news and bad news, because there's more of a need," said Unaitis, president of the coalition's board of directors.

The coalition houses 10 agencies within the Historic Triangle building and refers low-income, homeless and other people in need to agencies that can help. FISH is one such agency.

The coalition's Community Services Referral Network sends 75 to 100 families to FISH each week, Unaitis said.

In 2014, FISH provided the food equivalent to 173,775 meals, clothing for 10,597 outfits and housewares for 638 homes.

Volunteers met 5,319 total requests for assistance in 2014, and 517 households sought FISH's assistance for the first time.

The number of people in need of FISH's services has grown by 55% over the past three years, when compounded yearly, according to Butts.

Needs stem from crisis situations, such as house fires. But many times, the cause might be expenses exceeding income, Butts said.

"There are families that are facing multiple economic challenges, still," said Lisa Thomas, deputy director of Child Development Resources, which serves parents of young children.

Child Development Resources is one of several organizations who refer clients to FISH to help bridge gaps.

That list also includes United Way, Avalon and Social Services.

"There are people who will periodically in life come on hard times," said Juanita Graham, Avalon's director of outreach services. "Maybe they just can't make ends meet."

FISH provides a stopgap for people.

"It's just that little extra support that removes some obstacle for that family," Thomas said.

"You never know where it's going to lead," Bennett said. "And you won't see the results in your lifetime, but it's there. And sometimes little glimmers come through."

Glimmers

These glimmers reveal themselves in a smile, an action, a feeling.

"The feeling that you feel. That, to me, is the reward," Ngo said. "It's a joy in your heart."

That joy is contagious among volunteers, donors and clients.

Johnston witnesses some clients who select clothes from the closet then later donate the same clothes when they're unneeded back to FISH.

Bennett recalled the story of her late friend Minnie Mauro, who used FISH's transportation service, but always wanted to give something in return.

Mauro began to crochet hats for FISH clients. Over seven years, she made hundreds.

"I think your heart just goes with it. When you are familiar with what the purpose of this group is doing ... you can't ignore that," Ngo said.

"It sticks to you. It just doesn't go away."

Bridges can be reached at 757-345-2342.

For more information and to see FISH's full history, visit williamsburgfish.weebly.com.

FISH

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday.

Location: Historic Triangle Community Services Center, 312 Waller Mill Road #800, Williamsburg.

Contact: 220-9379, fishwilliamsburg@gmail.com

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