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Forty-six years ago Ling Ngo, a young wife and mother new to Newport News, picked up a copy of Reader’s Digest that featured an article entitled “A Friendly Neighbor Called Fish.”
The story detailed the efforts of the Rev. Derek Eastman to start a grassroots community initiative based on the idea of neighbor helping neighbor.
He called his movement “FISH,” and the spirit of it deeply resonated with Ngo, who years later was inspired to found a Williamsburg chapter of FISH, which began as a group that would address a range of needs for anyone who asked and has since focused its mission on its food pantry and clothes closet.
The spirit of FISH and the trajectory the Reader’s Digest article sent Ngo were what inspired Karen Berquist and Sally Fisk, two current members of FISH, to bring Ngo and three other founders of the organization’s Williamsburg chapter together for an afternoon of reflection last fall.
Berquist and Fisk spent several hours recording the recollections of Ngo, Marian Bennett, Nancy Lubrano and Sherry Welter on the early days of FISH. Motivated by the 40th anniversary of the Williamsburg chapter, the two women were eager to learn and preserve for posterity as much about the history FISH as they could.
The narrative history recorded at that meeting as well as a few existing documents from the past decades of FISH have been compiled and made public on a new website published this month in honor of the organization’s 40th anniversary.
Ngo started a Hampton Roads chapter of FISH in 1969. Her club was one of hundreds founded that year as a result of the Reader’s Digest article. Across the nation, people began to embrace the simple, age-old ideal that in times of trouble the community should be the first line of support for those in need.
In 1974, Ngo and her family relocated to Williamsburg and joined St. Bede Catholic Church. It was there that Ngo met Sister Nancy Lydon, who encouraged her to start a chapter of FISH in her new home. By the following year, Williamsburg had its own active group of FISH volunteers.
This year marks the 40th anniversary for Greater Williamsburg’s chapter of FISH, which serves the city, James City County and upper York County. The organization boasts 360 volunteers currently and has working partnerships with dozens of other local organizations.
Those numbers are a far cry from the humble beginnings of the volunteer group. In its early years, a small group of women worked independently to provide whatever resources and services they could, often going into their own pockets to provide them.
A few volunteers traded off shifts operating the organization’s answering service, which received just a few calls for assistance per month. Requests were mostly for food, clothing and transportation, which members of FISH provided at their own expense.
Simple gestures, such as providing a family in need with a home-cooked meal or clothing out of their own closets, were how volunteers in the early days served their community.
Members were also willing to answer more unusual requests, performing diverse tasks to help their neighbors in need. Volunteers provided transportation, aided with household chores and carried out all other manner of tasks in the name of fostering community spirit.
As their generous spirit and willingness to assist with anything became known throughout the community, calls for assistance became more frequent.
“The spirit of these women was amazing. These were individuals willing to make a difference,” Fisk said. “It was an incredible investment in opening their hearts.”
As the organization grew so did the town, and in the 1980s the Williamsburg area saw a major increase in population, largely due to the arrival of new business and the drastic expansion of hotels and restaurants in the area.
This influx of new residents brought with it growing pains, as the increasing number of low-paying, seasonal jobs associated with those industries caused financial hardship and instability for many workers.
FISH had grown in its numbers and resources, but before long the physical space available to the organization became a limiting factor. Churches began to open their doors to provide space for the growing stock of food items and clothing that the organization had available to donate, but the two stockpiles had to be kept in separate buildings and moved frequently as it continued to grow.
FISH finally rented its own dedicated space in which to house the food pantry and clothing in 1994, marking a major milestone for the organization. The dream of housing the pantry and closet together under one permanent roof became a reality with the purchase of space in the Historic Triangle Community Services Center on Waller Mill Road.
The move into a space of its own heralded a shift in the organization itself. As a well-established and far-reaching nonprofit, volunteers began to see the need for Board of Directors that could make decisions going forward and formalize the operations of FISH.
“The building was a result of the vision that Williamsburg as a whole would benefit from a centralized location [for the food pantry and clothes closet],” Berquist said. “It was the impetus for the formation of the Board, which brings organization to the goodwill.”
The physical centralization of FISH’s resources in 1994 preceded a concentration of its services in the next decade. As Williamsburg continued to grow, new and more specialized nonprofits began to pop up and take away some of the responsibilities FISH volunteers would have taken on in the earlier years.
As other groups stepped up to help with services like providing transportation and helping out around the home, FISH doubled down on its remaining core services: the food pantry and clothes closet.
“We have a more focused mission now due to the rise of other organizations that meet specific needs, “ Berquist said.
Both the pantry and closet are stocked via direct donation as well as through purchases made with money donated or awarded to FISH in the form of grants from organizations like the Williamsburg Health Foundation.
Today the FISH food pantry distributes food to thousand of people in need in the Historic Triangle each year. Families can visit once a month, and a volunteer in the pantry will help them “shop” for items to meet their needs. Last year alone FISH fed 11,585 people.
Every four months families can visit the clothes closet, where each individual in need of clothing can select three everyday outfits and one formal outfit.
The closet also includes a small section of housewares that are given away on an as-needed basis. Volunteers working in this section take meticulous care to mend, clean and organize each item of clothing that comes through the doors.
“We work hard to preserve a sense of choice and dignity to people in crisis,” said Billie Johnston, volunteer coordinator of the clothes closet.
That goal has remained particularly important in recent years, as FISH has seen a dramatic increase in need as a result of the 2008 economic downturn. Berquist and Fisk said that year saw an increase in demand for food and clothing that has continued to climb in each year since.
“We think of ourselves as a really affluent community, but at FISH we help a lot of homeless,” Berquist said. “I think some people would be surprised to know we have so many homeless in this community.”
In an effort to attract more donations, FISH has recently become a member of the Neighborhood Assistance Program, which provides Virginia state income tax credits for donations of $500 starting this November.
With need in the community continuing to grow, members of FISH are hopeful the organization’s 40th anniversary will raise its visibility and encourage others to donate their time and money.
“We’ve exponentially expanded, but the spirit of our service, the core values, heave remained the same,” Berquist said. “It’s about respect, and it always comes back to neighbor helping neighbor.”