Six days a week, 68-year-old Kae Lee bustles around the Federal Way Senior Center Food Bank. Her small stature, kind heart, and warm brown eyes give way to a powerful voice and speedy pace.
If you don’t keep up — well, that’s on you.
The FWSC Food Bank (4016 S. 352nd Street in Auburn) grew from the ground up with a handful of volunteers in 2011. Lee, who retired from her previous career with the Simpson Pulp and Paper Mill in Tacoma in 2017, began volunteering as a technology tutor at the senior center. She became the director of the food bank in June 2019.
“I love to help people. That’s what keeps me going,” said Lee, the Mirror’s Hometown Hero for the month of April. She said helping people is “the right thing to do,” and hopes that if she was ever in need, people would be kind enough to lend a hand.
She volunteers approximately 30 hours every week, scheduling volunteer drivers to pick up food from various grocery stores, and organizing teams to sort and pack donations in preparation of the weekly drive-thru style food bank each Monday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon. Her husband, Marlon, is one of the drivers.
Lee accepts praise and the Hometown Hero nomination with grace, but is quick to cast the spotlight of compliments on the volunteers of the food bank — the dozens of hands who make it possible to feed over 300 families per week.
“I look at this place as: we own this all together,” she said. “There’s no way this place can run with just one person.”
For several of the approximately 60 dedicated volunteers at the Federal Way Senior Center Food Bank, Lee is the reason they volunteer.
“She’s so kind to volunteers, everybody wants to work with her,” said Sandra Shull, who has volunteered at the food bank for about three years.
Loretta Herrmann, who has been a food bank volunteer for about two years, said Lee is the hardest working person she’s ever known.
“I would’ve hoped for her as a boss in the real world,” Herrmann said. “She has a passion for helping people.”
One of Lee’s strongest talents is the ability to support others, several volunteers noted. Volunteers range in age from 16 to 92 years old, and Lee has a knack for placing people in the right positions at the food bank to thrive.
In 2020, about 9,000 households (or 37,000 individuals) were served by the food bank.
Amid the massive jump in community members to feed, Lee remains upbeat, cheerful and so generous, said community member and volunteer Shelley Pauls.
“There are many logistics to navigate through, especially with COVID,” Pauls said. “[Lee] makes it look easy, even though we know it’s exhausting.”
Last spring, Lee and Shelley Puariea, executive director of the Federal Way Senior Center, partnered with the USDA Farm to Family Food Program. This partnership made it possible to expand by sharing pallets of boxes to churches, food banks and a variety of other local nonprofits, Pauls said.
The food bank receives 20 pallets (31,000 pounds) of fresh, nutritious food that is given to the community each week.
Volunteering each week allows you to build a relationship with the community members, learn their likes and dislikes, and get to know their families, said 16-year-old Marvin Caoagdan.
“I feel closer to the community than ever,” said Olivia Brooks, 16, who has volunteered for nearly two years. Both Marvin and Olivia agreed Lee’s drive, work ethic and kindness are what brings them back each week.
Lee prides herself on her team of volunteers and their desire to go the extra mile to make food bank visits special for each visitor. What sets the FWSC Food Bank apart from others in the area is that there are no qualifications or limits on who can receive food. Any person who shows up receives a selection of food and other on-hand resources, such as pet food and accessories, diapers and even flowers.
“As opposed to a company working for a profit, we all have the goal of feeding people,” Lee said.