SEDRO-WOOLLEY, Wash. – Members of the Washington National Guard are now permanent employees at a food bank after offering a helping hand during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Seeing the fear that some of them didn't know what they were going to do when they left, as a community, it was now our job to support them," said Rebecca Skrinde, the executive director of Helping Hands food bank in Sedro-Woolley.
The food bank asked for help in April 2020 when the pandemic increased the need for food assistance at the same time volunteers were sent home.
"Once COVID hit, we identified that many of our existing volunteers were in that demographic for being over 65 and high risk," said Erik Larsen, operations manager at Helping Hands. "It was two of us doing the work for a lot of people. There was a lot of things that didn't get done, but when I heard we were getting the Guard, it was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders."
For the next 18 months, members of the Washington National Guard worked side by side with Larsen and Skrinde to feed the community of Sedro-Woolley and all the surrounding areas.
"Before the pandemic, we served Sedro-Woolley and a little bit into Mount Vernon. During the pandemic, we served every town in the area and three other food banks closed permanently and reopened them during the pandemic," said Skrinde. "None of it would have been possible without the Guard."
The Guardsmen who supported Helping Hands moved more than 10 million pounds of food, serving nearly 700,000 people. As the mission neared an end, Skrinde began asking how many Guardsmen had jobs.
Eleven Guardsmen were looking for jobs. Skrinde knew that grant programs were put in place to help bring more paid employees to food banks, and she made a call that paid off.
"When Worksource called, they offered me one spot," said Skrinde. "Well, I said I want more. We got 10 spots. Eight are filled by National Guard folks that were here before."
One of the Guardsmen who is now working full time at Helping Hands is Master Sgt. Rick Baillie, 194th Force Support Squadron. Baillie started with Helping Hands in April 2020 and came off orders a few times before leaving his then-civilian job to take a deputy director position at the food bank.
"I was the first in and last out for the Guard," said Baillie.
After 27 years in the cable industry, Baillie believed the chance to go back to Helping Hands as a civilian was the opportunity he was seeking.
"After talking with Rebecca about what they do, it was such an intriguing opportunity," said Baillie. "I felt that it was a chance to do something bigger than myself. This is more rewarding."
Nine Guardsmen, many of them already living in the area, returned to Helping Hands after their orders ended. A few moved up to the area because they wanted to be closer.
"I moved up here because I wanted to be closer to the mission," said Spc. Hunter Clatterbuck, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 898th Brigade Engineer Battalion. "I have enjoyed it. I feel passionate about Helping Hands."
While not all the positions are permanent, they provide the Guard members the chance to grow and learn while earning a living and helping others.
"It gives them some stability, continuity, have some fun and gives them a chance to gain experience," said Skrinde. "After everything they did for us, I felt like it was our job to not just say, 'OK thanks bye,' and the community supported that, too."