‘Servant-leader’ Mary Lou Robertson leaves food bank

Longest-serving volunteer calls it quits after 30 years
By Paul Archipley | Jun 05, 2013
Photo by: Paul Archipley Mary Lou Robertson, the longest-serving volunteer in the history of the Mukilteo Food Bank, has stepped down after 30 years of service. She poses next to a Bernie Webber painting of the old First Presbyterian Church where the food bank was founded in 1982.

When Mary Lou Robertson began volunteering at the Mukilteo Food Bank soon after it first opened, it was a much more “casual” affair.

Like Joan Arnett and Kitty Hughes, who started the food bank, Mary Lou saw a need and stepped up to help. There were no government agencies watching over their shoulders or giving them direction; it was a simple case of neighbor helping neighbor.

That was 30 years ago.

Mary Lou, who turns 83 this month, decided three decades was long enough, and has “retired.”

In the beginning, most of the volunteers were members of the First Presbyterian Church, then located on 3rd Street. Mary Lou, who grew up in Seattle, moved to Mukilteo in 1961 and, as is her way, dived in, including years volunteering with the Rosehill School PTA.

The food bank operated out of the Presbyterian Church basement, handing out bags of groceries twice a month to anyone who lived within the boundaries of the Mukilteo School District. They typically served about 75 families per month.

Computers weren’t yet in common usage, so much of the food bank’s operation was logged by hand. Entries would detail the various foodstuffs they obtained: 400 pounds of potatoes; 200 pounds of chicken; 10 dozen diapers.

That’s right. Diapers.

“We had quite a reputation for giving out diapers,” Mary Lou said. One of the volunteers was married to a military man, so she had access to the commissary where she purchased diapers to hand out to young families. It wasn’t an item you’d normally find at a food bank.

“When she passed away, we stopped offering diapers, and people raised Cain,” Mary Lou said.

Volunteers quickly found another source; to this day, you can still get diapers at the Mukilteo Food Bank.

Over time, various regulatory agencies were created, and rules were established. If you wanted to get some of the federal government’s commodities, for instance, you had to play by their rules. That sometimes rubbed Mary Lou the wrong way.

“It was getting so it wasn’t fun anymore,” she said.

She said there’s even a dietician now who stresses the importance of providing wholesome, fresh food.

Mary Lou thinks you can overdo it. If a child hates oatmeal, is it really so bad to let him have a little Sugar Bomb Crunch once in awhile?

On the other hand, Mary Lou is surprised by how picky some clients can be.

“A lot of families who are fussy will tell us, ‘My kids won’t eat that,’” Mary Lou said. Really? They’re picky about free food?

But mostly, Mary Lou enjoyed the opportunity to help those in need. Over her 30 years at the food bank, she helped in nearly every capacity, including many years as the secretary of the board of directors.

Unlike some volunteers, she was always available.

“Mary Lou was a volunteer who kept busy, at openings, answering phone calls or making specials trips to the food bank, to feed families in need,” board President Penny Brown said. “She was always willing to help others.”

While retiring from the food bank, Mary Lou remains active at the Presbyterian Church, now located on 84th Street SW, just up the hill from the Speedway.

She’s a member of the Ruth Circle, which is part of the Presbyterian Women, and puts out that group’s newsletter.

But, like the food bank, its members are aging; both groups need an infusion of youth.

“A lot of volunteers have come and gone,” Mary Lou said of the food bank. “This group needs younger people to step up.”

She also thinks the food bank has grown to the point that it needs a paid director. With the Great Recession of the past few years, the number of people needing assistance has skyrocketed, and volunteers are asked to do more and more.

But Mary Lou won’t be one of them. Now living in South Everett, she’ll be plenty busy elsewhere.

By stepping down, she’ll have more time to spend with her husband, who is having health troubles (“I didn’t appreciate how much he did for me before,” she lamented.), as well as her children and grandchildren.

An avid AquaSox fan and season ticketholder, she looks forward to watching the home games, including one when her daughter will be singing the National Anthem.

But she’ll be sorely missed at the food bank.

John Collier, another long-time volunteer, said, “Mary Lou is pure compassion, belied by her matter-of-fact manner.

“We miss that distinctive voice she would use when trying to get us to do more to help those in need.

“She always took on those tasks that no one else was willing to do, which is the epitome of a truly selfless volunteer, a real servant-leader.”

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