A banker’s skills pay off

FISH volunteer is key player in search for new food pantry site

By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

When Dennis Hansen retired and moved to Santa Rosa 12 years ago, he and his wife, Barbara, had a well-thought-out plan.

Volunteer Dennis Hansen talks to FISH food bank clients on his telephone headset on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. (Jeff Kan Lee/ The Press Democrat)

They would spend more time with family, travel and do more hands-on volunteering.

Hansen, a banker for 40 years, had served on plenty of finance committees and other administrative boards for religious or nonprofit groups over the years.

“I’ve been blessed with skills from a career that I’m able to convert,” Hansen said.

But in retirement, he wanted to more directly serve people in need.

So he figured he’d pitch in at a little food pantry on Benton Street in Santa Rosa called Friends in Service Here, better known as FISH, which since 1973 has handed out supplemental groceries monthly to anyone in need.

There was just one problem. Hansen had polio as a child, which caused significant atrophy in one of his legs. A bad fall in the late 1990s left him even more unsteady.

“I’d never given any thought to the fact that the people that work there are carrying around 30-pound, 40-pound boxes,” Hansen said.

Ken Kushner, FISH’s former director, took one look at the guy wobbling up the path and suggested his skills might best be used working the phones.

“So much for hands-on work,” Hansen, 75, said recently from his home on the western edge of the city.

A year later, Hansen was the deputy director of the group, and he’s played a pivotal administrative role in it ever since. He speaks to groups about FISH’s mission, handles public relations and helps with fundraising.

A member of Sebastopol United Methodist Church, Hansen believes strongly that a core tenet of Christianity is to help others. Every time he talks to those who use the pantry, he’s reminded of what a vital service they are providing people.

“All you hear are things like, ‘Thank God you people are there,’ ” Hansen said.

Recently Hansen has served as the group’s point man in controversial negotiations with the city.

The group’s lease is up at the end of the year, and it will have to vacate the Benton Street building because the city doesn’t have the money to upgrade the former firehouse to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which it would be required to do by the end of 2013.

So now the group has got to find a new home, and Hansen has been instrumental in orchestrating that effort. He is working closely with a broker to review potential new locations and raising money to make sure they have enough to cover the first year’s rent and utilities.

The transition has been challenging for the all-volunteer organization to come to terms with. The free rent the city provided the group for 17 years combined with generous donations from grocery stores and other community groups have allowed FISH to work miracles with its modest budget.

Last year it distributed more than 580,000 pounds of food to nearly 64,000 people in 16,000 households. In the past, 100 percent of donations have gone directly to providing people food, 80 percent of it donated, 20 percent purchased when necessary from the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

When he first started looking at the rent and utilities that might be required for a new home, Hansen was worried it might cost as much as $30,000 per year, money FISH didn’t have.

It turns out the real figure might be less than $20,000, a more manageable amount. If they can secure some grants, step up fundraising efforts and begin putting a small percentage of donations toward overheard, Hansen is confident the transition can succeed.

And after it done, he says he’ll take a deep breath before gearing up for the next phase of the effort — a capital campaign to see that the organization’s future is secured with a building of its own.

“I want to be sure that FISH is here 40 years from now,” he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.)