Business is booming at Haven House, Hamilton’s 19-year-old food bank—the eighth busiest in the state and the only food bank in Montana’s top 10 run strictly by volunteers.
Haven House director Ileen Parsons said the Bitterroot Valley’s lack of decent-paying jobs is what keeps the food bank customers coming back for more. And a good percentage of the clients are Bitterroot natives who have returned home after a sojourn elsewhere and find that a $7 an hour job can’t feed the family.
“A lot of these people have come back home for whatever reason, to be close to their parents, or raise their kids,” Parsons says. “The biggest problem is jobs.”
Parsons doesn’t have the figures for 2000 yet, but the 1999 stats are impressive: 133 tons of food was accepted by the food bank from various sources and sent out in food boxes to more than 12,000 clients. The client number is especially alarming, since it represents about a third of Ravalli County’s total population, though some of the clients are repeat customers. Even more telling is the fact that Haven House doesn’t even serve the entire county, but only the southern half from Victor to the Idaho border.
Haven House is a community effort. Thirty-four volunteers, including an 83-year-old man who has volunteered for 18 years, keep the food bank running. Several local hunters get two deer tags each year—one for themselves and one for Haven House, which is kept well-supplied with wild game during the hunting season. A community garden in Hamilton is the source of potatoes, corn and green beans, and one commercial greenhouse in Corvallis donated about 4,000 pounds of tomatoes this year. A local man drives his flatbed truck to Missoula each month to pick up 10,000 pounds of food for Haven House from the Montana Food Bank Network.
For the “luxuries” like toilet paper, toothpaste, sugar, tea and coffee, Haven House relies on the kindness of strangers who donate cash throughout the year for the purchase of such items. “You just can’t believe how generous people are,” Parsons says.
With the number of clients increasing each year, Haven House needs all the help the volunteers can find. Parsons estimates that Haven House’s client list has grown between 10 and 17 percent a year for the past few years, so much that Parsons is seeking grant money to purchase a computer so she has somewhere to store all those names.
“We’d certainly like nothing better than to close up shop,” she says, “but that’s not about to happen anytime soon.”