ReFuel Washougal adjusting to ‘new normal’

New leaders focus on attracting volunteers, increasing donations as need for shelter, food grows

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ReFuel Washougal volunteers prepare meals for their Friday night guests. (Contributed photo courtesy of Fran Whitmeyer)

The new leaders of ReFuel Washougal, a nonprofit organization that provides people in need with free weekly meals and access to shelter in the event of severe weather, say they feel optimistic about the organization’s future.

Right now, however, they are more focused on the present, trying to figure what their “new normal” is going to look like after surviving the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have had talks of where we see ourselves five, 10 years from now,” said Ann Stevens, who recently took over as chairperson of the ReFuel Washougal Board of Directors, replacing the Board’s longtime chairperson, Rev. Robert Barber. “But currently, we are really just trying to just keep our foundation strong and get the word out. We’ve talked about doing a second (meal) night. It’s been brought up. But (we decided), ‘Let’s just really focus on making our one night strong first.'”

ReFuel currently serves an average of 100 to 120 meals — double the amount that it served before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — at the Washougal Community Center every Friday night, according to Stevens

“(The number is) growing,” she said. “I have been seeing some new faces, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. I don’t want to see more (people), especially when they come in with kids. But it’s nice to see that they’re aware of us and know that we can help them, even just for one night.”

Fran Whitmeyer, ReFuel Washougal’s volunteer coordinator, said there isn’t a lot of “middle” in the Washougal economy.

“To me, we’re in a city that is either very affluent or very hand-to-mouth,” Whitmeyer said. “There’s not a lot of ‘in the middle.’ The cost of living is higher. People don’t have the money (they used to have). And our donations are down.”

The increased demand has put an additional strain on the organization’s volunteers, who pay for, prepare and serve the meals and are reimbursed $175 per week for doing so no matter how much they spend.

ReFuel’s revenues come from the city of Washougal, grant awards and donations.

“If you’re going to feed 120 people, how much money are you going to spend to do that? It’s not going to be $175,” Whitmeyer said. “These groups experience a shortfall every week. The cost of the food to serve those meals (has increased). It’s a problem. I’m afraid it’s going to impact our volunteer (numbers) if they can’t continue to afford the deficit.”

ReFuel currently has more than 200 volunteers, but is working to recruit more.

“We’ve lost volunteer groups, and we don’t know why,” Whitmeyer said. “We had a retreat at the end of October, and I floated the idea of having a quarterly meeting with the group leads, so I (recently) started doing Zoom meetings with them. The last meeting went really well. I saw a sharing of ideas. (The feedback) was positive. We started seeing the people connecting more with each other, groups to groups connecting, which is always a good thing because that makes your community stronger.”

ReFuel volunteers also open the community center to people in need of a roof and warm bed on nights of predicted snow, freezing rain or temperatures below 30 degrees.

Tia Billings has taken over as the coordinator of the shelter, replacing Barber.

“It’s going really well,” Billings said. “(We opened) for the first time in two years in December, so everything was a little dusty and we were a little rusty. I’m new in the position, but Bob has stuck by my side, thankfully, because he’s a much better speaker than I am. We’ve been so blessed. We actually have a good group of people that come in (as) guests. We think everyone has been safe.”

The weather shelter can only open, however, if it has enough volunteers to do so. Most of the time it does, but sometimes it doesn’t.

‘(We have to get volunteers) on very short notice,” Billings said. “That’s been our biggest struggle because I have to have every slot filled before we can be open, no matter what the weather is. Earlier in February, around Valentine’s Day, we couldn’t open because I didn’t have enough volunteers. I was open on Thursday and Friday that week, but not on Valentine’s Day, and it was super cold that night.

“I have somebody that’s (recruiting) more volunteers from the senior group, and that’s great, but I need a mix of people. I need people that can actually lift those cots because they are really heavy.”

ReFuel has partnered with several regional nonprofits, including the Washington State Health Care Authority’s Homeless Outreach Stabilization and Transition (HOST) program and the Clark County Council for the Homeless, to provide services to its Friday night guests.

“I (call it) a pilot program,” said Fran Whitmeyer, ReFuel’s volunteer coordinator. “We’re trying to make space available for social services for those that need them because we don’t have anything out here in the eastern part of Clark County. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel to make that happen. We’re going to work with organizations who come (to the community center on Friday nights) when the people are there so that they have someone to talk to.”

HOST and the Council for the Homeless will join Columbia River Health Mental Health, which started working with ReFuel at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and West Columbia Gorge Humane Society, which has provided the guests with free pet food for several years.

“The idea is to have an initial contact meeting place that is consistent so that people know where to go,” Whitmeyer said. “Homeless people move. They’re not where (the Council for the Homeless) thinks they’re going to be, so they can’t find them.”

Instead, Whitmeyer said, ReFuel encourages people in need of services to benefit those experiencing homelessness or hunger to attend ReFuel’s weekly Friday night dinner.

“It’s easier if we can get them to come to the Friday night dinner so that (our partner organizations) can help them,” Whitmeyer said. “We’re trying to … meet the people where they are.”

For more information about ReFuel Washougal, visit