The choice between going hungry and asking for help is tangled in hopes, expectations and life plans for many people. Children and senior citizens use emergency food services the most — more than 50% of the total used. One in nine Washington residents deals with hunger. Visiting a food bank — as a volunteer or as someone in need — reveals the very human reality behind the statistics.

Ruth is no stranger to adversity. She was a single mom during a time decades ago when good jobs for women were scarce. She is resilient, perennially upbeat and committed to giving back.

“When I was raising my children, it was rough,” Ruth says. “We didn’t have a lot of money. I’m a chef by trade, but I was lucky to get a job as a cook, and we were lucky to make a dollar-and-a-half an hour.”

In time, Ruth’s career prospects improved, and she landed a high-paying job as a government fish inspector. Financial security brought more than a comfortable life for her family and the means to support her mother; it also enabled Ruth to map out a plan for her later years. She expected to work until she was 65 or 70 years old, and then retire with a good income.

Life had other plans. Long before she could even think about cashing in a pension, Ruth suffered a broken back, began a series of surgeries and was forced to retire at 50.

“I tried to live on my Social Security, but rent and food and everything kept going up, and Social Security didn’t,” Ruth said.

Asking for help did not come easily.

“I was raised to be very proud, but being proud doesn’t feed you or pay the electric bills,” she says. “I knew it was time to ask for help, and Hopelink was there. I’m very thankful and very grateful for that.”

It has been 16 years since Ruth first visited a Hopelink center; initially applying for energy assistance, and later signing up for the food bank. That first day, an opportunity to give back caught her eye: a flyer asking for volunteer teachers. Ruth began teaching food bank clients about nutrition and how to use the foods that were available, and later signed up for a regular food bank shift.

And then she started bringing food for other volunteers; making sandwiches and baked goods that today fill a table in Hopelink’s Shoreline center break room every week.

She also has transferred her chef skills into a small cottage industry, making “Grandma Ruth’s” homemade bread and jam for friends. Sometimes she uses what she earns to pay a bill or buy food that isn’t available at the food bank; other times she will go out for a hamburger or to a movie.

Today, Ruth isn’t living the life she had planned many years ago, but her spirit is as strong as ever. She lives every day in gratitude; appreciating the friends she has made while volunteering, and finding joy in helping others.

“It’s been great to meet other people, and the clients — I want to cry sometimes,” Ruth said. “Some of them are so much worse off than I ever was. And to see them smile, and so thankful for food — it’s wonderful to see.”

On Tuesdays, Ruth greets food bank clients — most of whom aren’t aware that she, too, shops at a Hopelink food bank — with a cheery, “good morning, how are you today?” before helping them choose items from the freezer. She is on her feet much of the time; occasionally taking a seat on her walker. Clients smile when she acknowledges them by name, and remembers their favorite foods.

It is a long day, but Ruth never lets on that it can be tiring. And when the food bank closes, she packs up her sandwich plates and the now-empty brownie containers and heads home to spend time with her dog, Candy; grateful that she still has somewhere to go and something to do during this chapter of her life.

Since 1971, Hopelink has served homeless and low-income families and individuals in King and Snohomish counties; providing stability and helping people gain the skills and knowledge they need to exit poverty for good.