What started as personal misfortune evolved into a community benefit through the life of Centralia resident Jeff Smith.
Smith, 60, had been working as an educator, coach and athletic director 21 years ago when he suffered a stroke.
The medical calamity took away some of his functions, among them the ability to carry on as athletic director in Pe Ell.
Some time later, he was approached with the prospect of becoming the coordinator of the Greater Chehalis Food Bank.
“I was looking for something to do. It was frustrating,” Smith said. “I went there and have been there ever since.”
For 18 years, Smith has been spearheading efforts by the food bank to provide sustenance to individuals and families in need in Chehalis, Napavine, Boistfort and Adna.
He manages a pool of about 30 volunteers in gathering and dispersing food from the food bank’s facility inside Yard Birds in Chehalis, where the food bank is allowed to operate rent-free.
He puts in between 20 and 30 hours a week to accomplish the task. It’s a volunteer position that comes with no financial benefits for Smith.
The facility — one of eight in the Lewis County Food Bank Coalition — serves, on average, between 450 and 550 families each month. Each family is given between 60 and 90 pounds of food, up from between 25 and 35 pounds when Smith started some 18 years ago.
The food comes from private donations and a few consistent donors — Northwest Harvest, Food Lifeline and Acres of Hope Farm in Adna, among others — and is monitored and dispersed by Smith and his team of volunteers.
The reward, Smith said, comes with the service.
“I do it to help people,” he said. “When you look at the face of someone who doesn’t have much food, or when a child looks up at his mom and says, ‘We have food now,’ that makes it all worthwhile right there.”
It’s not about receiving recognition, either, he said. Still, Smith was honored in early March by the Lewis County chapter of Church Women United with the 2013 Human Rights Award. He was presented with a certificate during a celebration at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Chehalis March 1.
“It came as quite a surprise,” Smith said. “I’m very humbled by it, I’ll tell you that. But again, it’s an award that pretty much belongs to the food bank. That’s not why I do this.”
In a letter announcing the award, Jean Bluhm wrote that Smith’s “faith drives him to superhuman heights in caring for others.”
“People come with a great need, some guilt and embarrassment, but Jeff treats each person with honor,” Blum wrote. “Their spirits are lifted when he offers them what they desperately need. They straighten their shoulders and carry the food out with a steadier strp. The comments from those who receive the food help us understand that Jeff is there to serve, help, comfort and love those less fortunate with the blessing and gift from God.”
Speaking with those in need of food as they come to the food bank is one of the duties Smith said he enjoys most. He said he strives to make them feel comfortable as they come in search of necessities they cannot live without.
“It’s a tough thing for a lot of people,” he said.
He hopes the job will be made easier when the Greater Chehalis Food Bank re-opens at a new facility at 750 SW 21st St. in Chehalis in the coming weeks.
The new building will provide more storage for food and a waiting room for those coming to pick up food.
As for Smith, he has no plans on leaving his position anytime soon.
“As long as it’s still comfortable and they still want me here, I have no plans of not doing it,” he said. “It’s a great group of people to work with.”