By Bonnie DeCaro-Monahan
Tom & his wife, Lorene.
Can you think of a conversation where you felt that the person you were speaking with was truly engaged and genuinely cared? That’s what the experience is for anyone who talks to Tom Ehlers about basic human needs. His compassion for others is evident and he wants to be a part of the solution. “The idea that someone is hurting for such a basic need like food or clothing has always struck me as so sad. When I started looking for ways to get more involved in our community, I naturally thought of the food bank.” shared Tom.
It was Tom’s role as a father that first compelled him to engage with the Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank. Twelve years ago, while searching for a way to get involved with his two middle-school aged sons around Thanksgiving, Tom found the food bank website and learned of a big need for clothing for teen boys. “So, we put out a ‘call to action’ in nearby neighborhoods (on-line and left notes on people’s doorsteps) and ended up collecting thirty-two large bags of clothing. The boys felt such a sense of accomplishment and we all appreciated that we were helping people in a time of need.” Tom explained.
Tom didn’t stop there though – he dug deeper. In describing his progressive roles, Tom shared “I started out leading a small group tasked with assessing how to optimize our approach to clothing. Based on that, I became familiar with the work of the Board and was asked to join in 2014. After serving on the Board for a few years I became Vice Chair and then transitioned into the Chair role in 2017.” September 1, 2021, marked Tom’s last day as Board Chair, but he remains on the Board to continue the vital work being accomplished.
Tom is all too aware of the ongoing concerns, realizing that the Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank is not meeting 100% of the needs in our region and that those in need are often hesitant to reach out and ask for help. He shared “It truly breaks my heart to think there is a child (or anyone) going to bed hungry that we could help. My most important message to share is that we are here for you and want to help. Just give us a call or contact us through our website.”
With 25+ years of experience in retail marketing, product management, business development and operations for companies such as Starbucks, Nestle, and Quaker Oats, Tom brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank board. Tom has always believed that the Board exists primarily to assist staff in pursuit of the mission and to provide oversight to the entire organization. In light of this, he shared that “everything accomplished during my tenure has a capital WE associated with it.” Of those accomplishments, Tom feels that some of the most significant are:
Developing and executing programs to reach more people in need. “Programs such as Summer Lunch, Groceries to Go, and Lunch for the Break have seen big increases over the past several years. In addition, we’ve become almost a social services agency by growing our Case Management function and adding client outreach capabilities.”
Maximizing use of our facility. “We’ve been out of room for quite a while but have found ways to get the very most out of what we have and serve our clients with the respect they deserve.”
Establishing a degree of financial stability for the organization. “A Board ultimately is responsible for financial oversight, and we’ve made nice strides over the past few years ensuring we’ll be able to meet the current and future needs of our clients. “
And, of course, navigating a difficult environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic. “The urgency of the situation called for a complete reimaging of our operational processes to keep everyone safe, yet still serve our clients.” Tom played a pivotal role in making it through year one of COVID-19 response. It was a great example of Board and staff partnership.
Simultaneously, while serving as Board Chair for the Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank, Tom was also a charter member and Board Chair of the Sammamish Human Services Commission, serving 5 years ending earlier this year. He’s currently involved in his church’s ‘Faith-in-Action’ outreach efforts including helping with refugee resettlement. In addition, they recently established a Lake Washington Tech scholarship for disadvantaged minority students. Tom is also on the organizing team that’s working to create a first-ever Senior Center in Sammamish.
While all of this sounds like more than one not-yet-retired person can humanly accomplish, Tom still finds time to enjoy hiking, kayaking, reading, family time, socializing with friends and walking their 12-year-old lab Jessie. Tom also added that he has “been learning (sort of) to cook!”
Tom, from the entire staff and all those we serve, we want to convey our deepest appreciation for all the time, talent, energy, resources, and advocacy you have given over the years. You have made a tremendous impact and we are forever better because of it.