It’s been half a century since a small group of friends from the St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church got together to spread some holiday “good cheer” to their less fortunate neighbors.
A pair of socks, a toy for the kids and a few food items for their families was what this group shared during its inaugural season of 1962. Little did they know that their idea would morph into a self-sustaining, model food bank that grows its own produce and provides food for an average of 864 families each month.
The idea was simple: In 1962, a small group of friends approached the local welfare department for a list of families in need during the holidays. To their surprise they received 120 names of South Whidbey residents — many of them children. A strike at Boeing had contributed to the tough times, but it was also a more rural Whidbey Island.
“People were helping each other back then,” recalled Richard Clyde, who spent most of his life in Langley running a garage and became a board member in the late 1980s. “People helped each other because there wasn’t anybody else around.”
Recognizing the need, the group formalized its efforts by forming the South Whidbey Good Cheer Inc. in 1963. The organization was led by three strong women: President Marian Howe, who had a talent for starting charitable organizations; vice president Ida deArmand; and treasurer Hanna Tommy Double, who ran the Langley thrift store for almost 25 years and remained honorary board president for the remainder of her life.
In 1964, the group held its first fund drive. They made a record-setting $61.60. The organizers were amazed by the generosity of the community, but they offered prudent words in an article in the Whidbey Record after many families had sent in $5.
“While we’re deeply grateful, we want to say such large amounts are not necessary. ‘A dollar donation buys two pairs of socks, and 50 cents buys a game,’” they told Record readers.
Today, $61.60 barely fills a grocery basket, but Good Cheer can turn it into $554.40 worth of food, said Kathy McLaughlin McCabe, Good Cheer’s executive director. But that’s a drop in a bucket measured on today’s needs. Last year, Good Cheer distributed 778,913 pounds of food.
The early days
In 1965, after two seasons of spreading Christmas joy, the founders submitted an application to become a nonprofit 501(c)(3) — the first of its kind on South Whidbey. At that point, the organization was funded mainly through proceeds from the thrift store that also opened in 1965 in the old post office in Langley next to the Dog House, which is a gallery today.
Double, a retired social worker, ran the thrift store opening it on Friday afternoons. The store brought in some funds for Good Cheer, but it also served as a help closet for families in need. There wasn’t a food bank yet. But Double would hand out food vouchers.
Min Dexter, who became a volunteer in 1978 after retiring from the Star Store, said that the crew at the Star Store sometimes reported that the vouchers weren’t used for nutritional food but for candy and soda pop. Double did not like to hear that, so she started walking clients down to the store.
“You better believe, people started buying good food then,” Dexter said.
Dexter reflected on how much Double would have loved the offerings for clients today at Good Cheer.
“She would have loved the garden, the fresh vegetables,” she said about the garden project that was started in 2009 and provides food bank clients with seasonal fresh foods.
Good Cheer moved into its best-known location on Anthes Street in Langley in 1969. With the move to a larger location, an in-house food bank was established to handle the increased need and slowly, throughout the 1970s, Good Cheer shifted its focus to feeding people. Howe and Double led Good Cheer for many years. Double was the face of the Langley Thrift Store until nearly 1980, when she reluctantly retired.
Joy McClellan was the executive director from 1981-1996 and she meant business.
When she started out, the thrift store made $50 a day on a good day, donations came in slow, yet the need was great, she recalled. McClellan put her head together with those of other long-time helpers and convinced the board of directors to expand.
“First I was the only paid employee. Then I finally got an assistant,” she said. “Then we talked our board into not renting out the space that Porter Insurance had held and expanded instead. Next, we talked them into building a walk-in freezer. It just kept growing so fast. Upstairs was added in 1992.”
They needed to grow in the early 1980s, she said. Continuing Boeing layoffs affected the community and the population was growing.
The food bank wasn’t by any standard what it is today, McClellan said.
“There were certain things you couldn’t get. We didn’t always have everything. We traded with stores when we needed fresh milk or when somebody had a baby and we needed baby food. Then we’d call around,” McClellan said.
The thrift store also wasn’t bringing in much, said long-time volunteer Marilyn Thomas.
“We never made any more than $20 a day. If we did, it felt like we did something big,” she said.
“Boy, if we had $100 then we had really done something. And if somebody came in with a big donation of items, all the volunteers would hurry to be first in line to sort. We were a long way from the piles that you find at the place in Bayview,” she said, referring to the state-of-the-art distribution center at Good Cheer’s Bayview site.
Dexter and Thomas are also amazed by the newly renovated Langley Thrift Store, which is slated to bring in more than $355,000 annually.
Those early efforts paid forward. McClellan said it still warms her heart that there were so many who gave back once things improved for them.
“There were many people who, when they got back to work, all came back and donated,” she said. “That’s what made us so strong. This is what makes Good Cheer such a good place.”
Today’s executive director had similar experiences.
“We have many clients that are also volunteers,” McLaughlin McCabe said. “One story that is the most memorable to me is when a child left a note on my desk that read ‘Thank you for being here for us. We would be very very down on money without you. So we want to help you and we will work in the garden!’”
Richard Clyde, who became a board member after his late wife — an avid Good Cheer volunteer — passed away, said the organization grew with the community.
“I saw the need for Good Cheer,” Clyde said. At the time he joined the board, it was a community quickly changing, he said — more focused on tourism and specialty stores and less of the neighbor-helping-neighbors community he had known in earlier years. “It felt like people helped each other less.”
Clyde also said while many merchants and residents supported Good Cheer, some were critical as the thrift store sold at low prices and the food bank gave away food.
“Some looked down on it. They didn’t have sense to see that people would come back later when they got back to work and spend their dollars in town,” Clyde said.
Looking at the accomplishments of recent years, including moving the food bank to the Bayview site, Clyde said it’s the determination of staff and volunteers that keep the organization thriving.
Investing in the future
With so much history behind them, the current team of leaders hope to eliminate hunger in the community within the next 50 years. Since McLaughlin McCabe has taken over in 2002, Good Cheer has made great strides toward this goal.
Additional thrift stores were added, “Good Cheer Two” in 2002 and “The Rack: in 2007. The Bayview facility was purchased and renovated in 2007 — just in time.
“At our old site in Langley, our food bank served an average of 11 families a day. When we first opened at our new site we were serving an average of 33 families a day,” McLaughlin McCabe said.
This coincided with the Nichols Brothers shut down in 2007; the food bank was ready to support the need when South Whidbey’s number one employer had a mass layoff.
This summer, as the community is still recovering from the recent recession, Good Cheer served more than 60 families a day.
While supporting the community through some tough times, the Langley thrift store was renovated. The community garden bears fresh vegetables and fruit for clients and the food bank itself has the look of a grocery store rather than a food bank with the food point system allowing clients to shop with dignity and more targeted to their need.
“Our community is so blessed that 50 years ago the founders of the local Food Bank named it ‘Good Cheer,’” McLaughlin McCabe said. “The name itself implies optimism, hopefulness, and joyfulness. With the same spirit in which Good Cheer was first created that same spirit continues to thrive and has led us to where we are today.”