As a trained engineer, Chris Courtney knows the importance of research. So after his daughter finished high school, and the single father of two began to think about filling his extra time with volunteer work, he turned to the Internet.
A 22-year employee of the Washington state Department of Transportation, Courtney had long donated to the department’s annual Christmas food drive. The main beneficiary was Second Harvest, the Spokane-based hunger-relief organization that in 2013 handed out more than 21 million pounds of food to some 250 charity groups.
“And it was great that we had the food drive,” Courtney says, “but in January I started thinking, ‘What do people do for the rest of the year?’ ”
So he began investigating. His first stop? A website called charitynavigator.org.
“They go through and they rate the different charities,” Courtney says. “And” – he pulls out a sheet of paper and points to a colored chart – “that’s Second Harvest.”
The chart reflects an impressive expense-report breakdown: 98 percent of the contributions that come into Second Harvest go to programs; the other 2 percent is split between administrative and fundraising costs.
“There are some charities in which 50 percent goes to overhead and this type of stuff,” Courtney says. “When I took a look at that, I thought, ‘That’s the kind of outfit I’d like to volunteer with.’ ”
Courtney, clearly, is a big fan of Second Harvest. And the folks at Second Harvest like him right back.
“Our volunteer team raves about him,” says Jason Clark, the food bank’s president and CEO. “He helps in our volunteer center with food sorting and such, but he’s gone above and beyond that. … (He’s) in forklift training now so that he can help more in our warehouse and in supporting the larger events we do in our volunteer center.”
“I think he is absolutely wonderful,” adds Debbie Clemens, the group’s volunteer events coordinator. “Whenever we have a volunteer event or need a volunteer driver to fill in during the week, he’s more than willing to take time off from his job whenever he can.
“All the volunteers are wonderful,” Clemens says, “but he is one in a million.”
Courtney began volunteering at Second Harvest a little more than three years ago. His job provides a degree of flexibility that allows him to take the occasional vacation day whenever Clemens calls.
“My boss is very supportive,” he says.
Courtney gives to other charities, too. Through his job he donates to the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, an organization he calls “the greatest charity here in Spokane because it’s protecting the children.”
“Children are near and dear to me,” he says, though he’s quick to point out that working in a crisis nursery “is not my specialty.”
“When I was going to college (at the University of Washington), I worked in a grocery warehouse,” Courtney says. “So that’s where my training is.”
Working at Second Harvest is, in fact, much like working in a grocery warehouse. Rows and rows of shelving 30 feet or higher hold every conceivable kind of foodstuff, all of which needs to be categorized, sorted and packed for distribution.
Courtney began as a sorter, he says, “putting in boxes apples, potatoes, oranges – just the whole variety.” These days, Clemens says, Courtney often oversees other volunteers, as he did in a recent Saturday event.
“He was in charge of, oh, 30 people,” Clemens says, “and he was out there just working up a sweat, supervising them. He gets right in, moving boxes around, making sure everybody is supplied. It’s pretty impressive.”
Here’s the thing, though: The job is as valuable to Courtney as Courtney is valuable to the job. He thinks of how more fortunate he is than, say, the Second Harvest client with a 15-year-old autistic son who for a time was homeless.
“I get to physically work,” he says, “and at the end of the day when I’m tired, I know that I’ve contributed something.”
And if he had any doubts about what he was doing, he was reminded last Thanksgiving when he worked Tom’s Turkey Drive, spearheaded by KREM 2 News chief meteorologist Tom Sherry.
“And there were all these people that wouldn’t have Thanksgiving dinner, except for the program,” he says. “And when they were leaving the parking lot, the number of people that rolled their windows down, thanked us for volunteering and thanked us for helping out …”
His voice trails off. Then he continues.
“Think of that,” he says. “Because when you’re helping somebody else out, they’re gonna remember that. And at some point they will have a chance to also give back. And so you’re not just helping one person, you’re making an impact. I mean, all I can say is we’re impacting generations.”