Brunell: People helping people

In November 1982, our state’s unemployment rate peaked at 12.2 percent, the highest since the Great Depression. Interest on a fixed rate home loan was 13.4 percent, and an 11.5 inflation rate burned through our checkbooks. The economy was a mess.

The impacts of President Ronald Reagan’s Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 hadn’t fully kicked in yet, and Gov. John Spellman (R) and the Legislature had repeatedly increased taxes and cut programs to balance the state’s budget.

It was a bleak time: people were hungry and work was scarce.

There was, however, a glimmer of hope. As Thanksgiving approached that year, Norm Hillis, a member of the University Rotary Club in Seattle, was troubled by the growing number of homeless and hungry people. Taking rotary’s “service above self” motto to heart, he started a program that would become Rotary First Harvest.

Hillis convinced his neighbors who lived around the University of Washington to plant extra vegetables in their gardens and donate them to Northwest Harvest. The program took off, and today, rotary clubs in Washington are part of a network called Rotary First Harvest that supplies local food banks with 11 million pounds of produce a year.

Trucks bring surplus fruits and vegetables from storage sheds and warehouses to distribution centers in cities throughout the region. For example, large bins of fruits and vegetables are trucked to Northwest Harvest’s food sorting and distribution center in Kent where volunteers bag them into individual servings, box them for distribution and send them to food banks.

That principle of “neighbors volunteering to help neighbors” has been a bright spot throughout our history. It is engrained into culture.

Today, we often think of “public assistance” as a government check. While that may be partly true, it is much larger. It is people assisting people. As our nation grapples with paying its bills and retiring its massive debt, we all will have to rely less on government and more on each other.

Interestingly, Rotary First Harvest is successful because its members are business owners who donate business services to help their neighbors. For example, over the last 15 years, Ed Vander Pol, co-owner of Oak Harbor Freight Lines, has volunteered to bring produce from farms to the cities.

Oak Harbor Freight, which for the last 97 years has shipped freight across California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, donates vacant space in its empty trailers. Vander Pol estimates his trucks transport a million pounds of produce a year.

Because of the trucking network, Washington fruit packers like Stemilt Growers and National Frozen Foods can ship surplus fresh vegetables, rather than let them rot in the fields or packing sheds.

The need has been especially acute since 2008, when the economy collapsed and unemployment surged. While the recession has technically ended, job growth has recovered at a snail’s pace. The government borrows 40 cents of every dollar it spends, and as our national debt has grown and demand for tax dollars expands, the reality is there simply isn’t enough money for government to do what it’s currently doing, let alone do more.

Looking ahead, as President Obama and Congress wrestle with automatic budget cuts this month under the process known as “sequestration,” government funding for programs will be cut. And when Congress finally deals with the reality of skyrocketing retirement, welfare and health care costs, the need for volunteer programs that provide food, clothing and shelter will grow.

In the end, maybe families helping families and neighbors helping neighbors will revitalize our country and give new meaning to the term “service above self.”

Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business. Formed in 1904, the Association of Washington Business is Washington’s oldest and largest statewide business association, and includes more than 8,000 members representing 700,000 employees. AWB serves as both the state’s chamber of commerce and the manufacturing and technology association. While its membership includes major employers like Boeing, Microsoft and Weyerhaeuser, 90 percent of AWB members employ fewer than 100 people. More than half of AWB’s members employ fewer than 10. For more about AWB, visit