Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

Local News

June 21, 2010

FISH still making a difference

EFFINGHAM — The story of Effingham County’s FISH Human Services is, as its name suggests, a very human one — a story of the lives touched, but also of the lives that did the touching and, in doing so, came away changed.

    Ginnie Swanson is one of those lives. The Effingham resident got in on the ground floor of the organization as soon as she heard about it and has spent the larger part of the last 40 years lending a helping hand through the agency’s ever-expanding community outreach programs. The experience, she said, has changed her life.

    “It was really one of the most significant experiences in my life because I learned so much and it was the greatest way to give of myself. It changed my whole life,” she said recently.

    And while FISH changed Swanson, the organization itself was changing, too, growing faster than its creators could have imagined and expanding its outreaches one after another.

    What started in 1970 primarily as a program to get people where they needed to go — be it the doctor’s office or the grocery store — soon branched off into a food pantry, clothes closet and more.

    “We were a jack of all trades,” Swanson said. “Anyone who had a problem FISH could handle, we did.”

    As FISH grew and expanded, it sometimes seemed to be busting at the seams, as donated items overwhelmed the volunteers who had yet to find a permanent base of operations for the organization.

    Current FISH Board member Karen Luchtefeld recalled the home of her mother-in-law, Mary Ellen Rauch, one of the organization’s founders, looking like a “perpetual garage sale,” as community members dropped off bags of donated clothing on her porch year-round. That problem also extended to the home of Maxine and Owen Williams, who ran the precursor to today’s Clothes Closet out of their home.

    The grassroots operation even extended to the FISH answering machine, which Swanson recalled was run out of the home of Nancy Deters, another of the organization’s founders.

    By 1974, just four years after the charity was incorporated, the now well-known FISH Christmas Store was already up and running. An Effingham Daily News article from 1975 reported that the store distributed food baskets and Christmas stockings made by area Girl Scouts to 150 local families.

    The operation soon expanded, both in the items it offered and the families it served, adding a toy store in the late ‘70s that has been brightening children’s holidays ever since. By 1982, about 400 families were taking advantage of the Christmas Store, and that number has hit around 600 for each of the last two years.

    Meanwhile, the Christmas Store wasn’t the only FISH project that was flourishing with the help of a ready volunteer base. The organization also took on Meals on Wheels, delivering nutritionally-balanced dinners to area seniors, and reorganized its medical transportation volunteers into the force they are today.

    But the big game-changer for FISH came in the form of a deed from the city to a parcel of land adjacent to the railroad tracks on Grove Avenue and Maple Street, where the FISH building stands today. The gift of the land in conjunction with a $20,000 grant from the Kluthe Trust paved the way for the construction of the 4,800-square-foot service center that was dedicated in 1998. In turn, the effort of the city and its residents to give FISH a permanent home caught the eye of state officials, who bestowed the organization with the Governor’s Home Town Award for volunteerism the next year.

    Today, just 11 short years later, the organization is again busting at the seams, with hardly enough room in the service center to hold all the donated goods and the FISH vehicles used for its transportation programs.

    But as far as FISH volunteers are concerned, it’s a good problem to have — and as far as Swanson can foresee, it’s one that will continue.

    “We never seem to lack volunteers,” Swanson said recently. “I think it’s because of this one sentence ... that it’s more blessed to give than to receive.”

    Amanda King can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 138 or amanda.king@effinghamdailynews.com.

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