Leanne Aleia, 86, at her Mill Creek home, surrounded by only a fraction of the food she has collected for donation. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Leanne Aleia, 86, at her Mill Creek home, surrounded by only a fraction of the food she has collected for donation. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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‘I know what hunger is,’ so at age 86 she’s a food bank donor

Mill Creek workers helped deliver her big donation. Experts see a critical need for food assistance.

At 86, Mill Creek’s Leanne Aleia can look back on a life of family, steady work and accomplishment. She raised four children, owns her home and for 45 years held a number of jobs.

Looking way back, she remembers childhood hunger.

She can still see herself as “a little kid sitting under a tree,” a child of the Great Depression who knew her stomach hurt because she’d had nothing to eat that day.

“I know what hunger is,” said Aleia, who last month donated nearly 1,000 pounds of food to the Mill Creek Community Food Bank.

It wasn’t the first time her generosity has helped people in need. Over the past five years, she has made monthly efforts to bring bags of groceries to donation boxes at Mill Creek City Hall. Food collected there makes its way to the Mill Creek Community Food Bank.

The food bank is in the back parking lot of Gold Creek Community Church at 4326 148th St. SE in Mill Creek.

Due to the risk of COVID-19, Aleia hasn’t gotten out lately to make her regular donations. Still, she has shelves loaded with nonperishable food intended to help others. Her grocery shopping trips have always included picking up extra items, especially those on sale, to give away.

Aleia called Mill Creek City Hall last month seeking help. Jodie Gunderson, an administrative supervisor with the city, said a customer service team was willing to pitch in and get her donations to the food bank.

On Aug. 26, Mill Creek city staff turned lunch hour into a volunteer trip to Aleia’s home. Helped by Aleia’s granddaughter, 20-year-old Taylor Miles, they packed the bed of a pickup truck with groceries. At the Mill Creek food bank, which serves an average of 1,000 families per month, they loaded seven grocery carts with Aleia’s donations.

“They took all they could take,” Aleia said Wednesday. Eyeing all the cans and packaged items she still has, she estimated they could fill another truckload and then some.

Shelves and boxes of food for donation at Leanne Aleia’s home in Mill Creek. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Shelves and boxes of food for donation at Leanne Aleia’s home in Mill Creek. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“There are so many people struggling right now,” Gunderson said. She said the team enjoyed the opportunity to help, “and we look forward to volunteering again.”

A California native, Aleia said her very young parents “didn’t want me.” She said she was left with Roman Catholic nuns. In the 1930s, “they didn’t call it a foster child,” she said. Aleia recalls being sent to as many as seven homes as a girl — and not all of them showed kindness or fed her well. “I learned not to get attached,” she said.

After she was caught taking bites from other children’s lunch sacks in a school cloak room — she had no lunch of her own — Aleia said she was regularly taken by the nuns for a midday meal of soup, bread and hot chocolate with them.

At 14, by saying she was older, she landed a job cleaning tables in a restaurant. It paid 75 cents an hour. She finished high school, did well on a civil service exam, found work, married and became a mother. She and her husband moved to the Seattle area in the mid-1970s and later divorced.

“I made it,” said Aleia, who has never forgotten tough times.

As today’s families struggle with job losses and school closures, she can easily imagine a child looking at an empty kitchen table or cupboard and voicing a sad plea: “I’m hungry.”

On Thursday, leaders from the state Department of Agriculture and food assistance groups spoke about the critical need during an online briefing.

“We’re in for the long haul,” said Derek Sandison, the Department of Agriculture’s director, who sees the high demand for food help lasting for months to come.

Katie Rains, a food assistance specialist with the department, said 1.1 million people in Washington typically experience food insecurity over the course of a year. Due to coronavirus-related hardships, that number has grown to 2.2 million. “We anticipate a spike in demand,” with the peak normally in October through December, Rains said. “We haven’t really turned a corner with either the pandemic or the economy.”

Because of the pandemic, the food pantry model had to be replaced with food boxes and drive-up distribution.

Jason Clark, CEO of Second Harvest, said Thursday that at one drive-up event in Eastern Washington, of 785 cars surveyed, 314 families had never been to a food bank. It’s “hard to overstate” the need, he said. “The National Guard has been very helpful,” Clark added.

State Sen. Steve Hobbs, as a lieutenant colonel in the Washington Army National Guard, is now on active duty overseeing about 370 Guard members involved in getting food out to food banks and distribution centers. Since the start of the pandemic duty, the Guard has distributed 50 million pounds of food statewide, said Hobbs, who represents the 44th District.

Between 600 and 700 members of the Army National Guard and Air National Guard are involved in food efforts, said Joe Siemandel, a Washington National Guard spokesman. What they thought might be a month of duty has stretched to six months. “Many members have civilian jobs and need to return to work,” he said.

Food Lifeline CEO Linda Nageotte said Thursday she sees the potential, in the months ahead, for one-fifth of Washington’s population to be facing hunger.

In April, a statewide food relief effort was launched by Gov. Jay Inslee and nonprofit groups. Called WA Food Fund, it’s being managed by Philanthropy Northwest, a network of philanthropic organizations. It combines money from businesses and charities with individual fundraising. So far, it’s raised $12 million to alleviate hunger.

Kiran Ahuja, CEO of Philanthropy Northwest, said donations have ranged from $10 to the $1 million level, and the push continues. “This pandemic is here for a while,” she said Thursday.

In Mill Creek, Aleia believes it’s important to give what you can. She helped out when her grandchildren, Taylor and Jake Miles, were involved in high school food drives. When a bag is left in her mailbox for the annual Letter Carriers’ Food Drive, she fills that sack and several more.

And with her habit of buying for others, she has plenty more to give.

Of all the items on her shelves, there is an exception. On the day the Mill Creek helpers came to take her donations, Aleia said she told them, “You can’t have my coffee.”

Julie Muhlstein: jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Concert for food bank

Mill Creek Community Food Bank is open 4-7 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays in back parking lot of Gold Creek Community Church, 4326 148th St. SE in Mill Creek. To make a shopping reservation, call 425-316-3333. Information: hopecreekcf.org.

The Mill Creek Town Center Business Association has scheduled a free live-streaming concert starting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 16, in the Gold Creek Community Church parking lot (on a big screen with space for 70 cars) and on Facebook. The band Sly Mr. Y will perform. Canned food or monetary donations requested.

Information: millcreektowncenter.biz/sly-mr-y-livestream.

Live stream the concert at: Mill Creek Town Center on Facebook or at goldcreek.org.

Learn about WA Food Fund at: philanthropynw.org/wa-food-fund.

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