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FISH needs help from community to overcome summer donation slump

By Staff | Aug 19, 2010

Friends in Service Here (FISH) is in desperate need of donations to help meet the increasing needs of islanders. Pictured are Bill Fellows, who will step in as president of FISH in 2011, FISH volunteer Lynn Ridlehoover and current FISH President Maggi Feiner.

For almost 30 years, one island organization has dedicated itself to feeding and caring for the people of Sanibel and Captiva.

But as September approaches, Friends in Service Here (FISH) is struggling to supply items and services to islanders that are truly in need.

“We’re down drastically, but no more so than the Harry Chapin Food Bank and the other food pantries,” said FISH President Maggi Feiner. “This is the time of year when we’re all hit the hardest.”

When tourist season comes to a close, usually around Easter, many of FISH’s regular contributors leave the islands while recipients remain behind, making summer one of the organization’s most challenging times when it comes to keeping the food pantry stocked and volunteers on call.

“In May, that’s when people really start getting into trouble. By July they’re desperate and by October we have to start tapping into the reserves,” Feiner said.

FISH President Maggi Feiner shows the empty refrigerator that normally would be filled with eggs, milk and other dairy products for the 75 families they serve each week.

But this year, Feiner said the typical post-season lull has been severely compounded by job scarcity and a floundering economy, exacerbated further by stymied summer tourism due to misrepresentation in the media of the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Feiner said that when she tried to place her weekly order with Harry Chapin last week, she was told that the food bank was completely out of meat and poultry products.

As donations slow and the need for assistance grows, FISH food reserves are steadily dwindling and, unfortunately, essential items such as children’s Tylenol, toilet paper, toothpaste, laundry detergent and shampoo are not covered by standard food assistance, which makes acquiring basic hygiene and cleaning products next to impossible for many clients of FISH.

What is FISH?

The organization began in 1981 when a group of people from Sanibel and Captiva realized that there was a growing need for assistance for elderly, ill and lonely islanders who were having trouble maintaining their personal independence.

FISH came to the aid of Sheri Prange when a horrible tragedy befell her family and she suddenly had to take on the responsibilty of three children, in addition to her own son, Rocco.

After consulting a FISH group based in Connecticut, and with unwavering support from the Sanibel Police Department, the Sanibel-Captiva division of FISH was established in December of 1981.

Since then, FISH has continued to provide transportation for islanders who require rides to medical appointments or trips to the grocery store, free hot meals delivered to clients’ homes, health care equipment such as wheelchairs and canes, emergency financial assistance and, perhaps the simplest of all FISH’s services, friendly home visits and daily phone calls for people who just want someone to talk to. The organization also provides lunches for children attending summer activity programs on the islands to make sure they’re eating properly.

Feiner said that it’s FISH’s many generous donors and dedicated volunteers that make all of these services possible — and when you break down the statistics, it’s hard to ignore the dramatic increase of islanders in need.

In 2006, FISH spent $18,430 serving 136 clients with a volunteer force of approximately 90 people. Today, FISH has a budget of $273,000 and 991 clients with a volunteer force totaling 195 people.

Clients of FISH come from all walks of life — single moms, cancer patients, the homebound elderly and even people who, just a couple of years ago, were making six-figure salaries, but were forced to file for bankruptcy when times got tough.

The condiment and toiletries section is almost empty – toiletries and common condiments, such as toilet paper and laundry detergent, are needed.

But there is one case in particular that Feiner said she’ll never be able to forget.

Sheri’s story

Sheri Prange, a petite, perpetually-smiling 39-year-old, known for her cheerful disposition and tendency for giving hugs just because, works as a cash officer at Bailey’s General Store on Sanibel.

Two years ago, she had no idea that the organization even existed.

Pet food is given to senior, disabled or terminally ill people who have elderly pets that won’t be taken in by the shelters and may be the only companions FISH clients have.

But when tragedy turned her life upside down, Prange found out firsthand just how crucial a helping hand could be.

In October of 2008, Prange, exhausted from a day of fun at Baileyfest, was taking a nap with her then three-year-old son Rocco when her brother Shane Lewis called. He told her that her two-year-old nephew Kaydin, Lewis’ son, was in a coma.

She rushed to the hospital and met up with her brother and his girlfriend, Kaydin’s soon-to-be stepmother, where medical staff told them that Kaydin was suffering from a cerebral brain hemorrhage brought on by severe head trauma and that the toddler had a 10 percent chance of surviving the helicopter ride from Health Park to All Children’s Hospital.

Lewis’ girlfriend, who also has a daughter of her own named Angela, had concocted an elaborate story about Kaydin accidentally bumping his head on a pillar a few days before he was taken to the hospital. When medical staff claimed that Kaydin’s state could not have been induced by a slight bump on the head, the woman began producing other instances of potential injury, like slipping in the bathtub, that Lewis and Prange had no knowledge of.

The police arrived shortly thereafter and took both Lewis and his girlfriend to jail, upon which the latter immediately wrote out a full confession, detailing the alleged abuse, which included repeatedly slamming Kaydin’s head against a tile floor. Prange, who had stayed at the hospital hoping to ride with Kaydin on the helicopter, was told that she needed to go and pick up Ace, Lewis’ infant son, and Angela right away.

“I took the kids, and at the time the business I was working for was really slow, so I was wondering how I was going to take care of all them. I said no matter what, I’m going to take care of all these babies. I’ll figure it out. And that’s when somebody told me to call FISH,” Prange said.

Lewis and Kaydin’s birth mother, Ferhan Matheisen, stayed at Children’s Hospital watching over Kaydin for almost two months while Prange took care of Angela, Ace and Rocco.

“I had so much laundry and so many dishes, so many diapers,” Prange said, a smile crossing her lips as tears dropped from the corners of her eyes. “I can laugh at how overwhelmed I was then because God ultimately provided. I gave it to Him. I knew I couldn’t do this all by myself. I had to protect my family and there was no way I was going to let these kids go into foster care.”

Prange called FISH President Maggi Feiner and the two of them sat down to figure out how she could care for the three children on her own.

“We immediately jumped in and went over to the house and talked to her. She didn’t know where to go or what to do. She obviously didn’t have the funds to take care of three children by herself and she knew that Kaydin would be coming home from the hospital soon,” Feiner said.

With her permission, Feiner made Prange’s story public and the response from islanders was overwhelming.

“One of the things I love about this community is that when there is a tragedy like this, they pull together. We immediately had people dropping off clothes and diapers and asking what kind of things she needed,” Feiner said.

Kaydin was released from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day in 2008.

A large portion of the toddler’s skull had to be removed, which meant he had to wear a protective helmet for six months. Kaydin went through many surgeries and rehabilitation and the portion of skull that was preserved was reattached with plates. Prange said that for a long time, Kaydin’s left hand was clawed, he dragged one of his feet when he walked and he couldn’t smile.

“But his smile is completely and wonderfully beautiful today. His hand and his feet have healed. You can’t even tell what he’s been through. He has a stronger will to live than any person I’ll probably ever know,” Prange said.

Kaydin turns four on Aug. 23.

“We’re very proud of Sheri,” said Lyn Kern, manager of the FISH Walk-in Center. “She’s come through a horrific experience, and she’s come through it bigger and better and more beautiful than anyone could imagine. We’ve been gifted to be able to meet her needs and she’s been a gift to us.”

If it hadn’t been for organizations like FISH, the Sanibel-Captiva Zonta Club and Community Housing & Resources (CHR), Prange said she doesn’t know how she would have made it through the ordeal.

“They all pulled together for us. Zonta sent us food cards for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Shirley Boehnert, a volunteer at FISH, came over and did load after load of laundry and just talked with me. I’m so grateful,” Prange said. “I had an outpouring of help in my time of need — and they’re still helping me.”

The woman who confessed to abusing Kaydin is currently awaiting trial.

Though this story has a happy ending, for Prange, it’s a new beginning.

“I felt every single emotion imaginable — sadness, anger, fear — and now I’m just so happy. A lot of great things are going on in my life right now. I get to move back to Sanibel and be close to work and my son, who’s about to start at the Sanibel School, and because of Maggi and Lynn, Ace and Kaydin were able to go to the Children’s Education Center this summer.”

Thanks to CHR, Prange and her son will soon be able to live right next door to Lewis, Matheisen, Ace and Kaydin. Angela moved in with her grandmother in 2009.

“I just got the keys to my apartment. I’m back,” Prange said, her voice breaking. “I’m back home and I’m so excited for Sanibel to be their home too. This is where my heart is.”

And thanks to Feiner and Bailey’s Manager Richard Johnson, Prange has her new job as a cash officer.

“I wanted a job so badly and it’s not that I didn’t want any more help, I just wanted to start fresh and get back to me and my son. My family means everything to me,” Prange said, noting that Bailey’s also found a position for Lewis.

Prange said she is deeply grateful for the enormous support system that rallied around her in her time of need.

“It’s like I have a huge extended family — and I love them all very much. God has truly blessed me.”

How you can help

“Sheri had a lot of support, but she did a lot of it herself,” Feiner said. “She was one of the most horrific cases that has come through FISH, but she was also one of our biggest successes,” Feiner said.

When she’s not working or taking care of her family, Prange volunteers at FISH and Matheisen plans to start volunteering once she has settled into her new apartment.

“People can help by giving cash donations and buying food and dropping it off at the FISH Walk-in Center. When people leave the islands for the summer, they can drop off the food they didn’t use and they can donate medical equipment and clothes to FISH. It will go where it needs to go. There is a lot of money here on this island and this island works like a community, like a family, and when bad things happen, they all come together,” Prange said.

And of course, FISH is always looking for volunteers.

Another way islanders can support FISH is by participating in the second annual “10K Race 4 FISH,” which will take place on Saturday, Oct. 16 at 7:30 a.m. The race will be the organization’s most critical fundraising event for 2010.

“We are hoping that Sanibel and Captiva businesses will support us by taking a sponsorship and individuals will help FISH by entering the race to help fund the work that FISH does on the island,” said Ed Ridlehoover, co-chair of the 10K Race 4 FISH. “It will be a fun event and we are expecting more than 500 runners plus their supports to take part.”

The Sanibel-Captiva Trust Company will be this year’s premier event sponsor and  the Sanibel-Captiva Kiwanis Foundation, Inc. is a gold sponsor, along with a host of other island businesses who are supporting FISH through this event.

Applications for sponsorship and entry forms for the 10K Race 4 FISH are available at the FISH Walk-in Center and electronically from FISH board member Blanaid Colley, Blanaid@hillgate.biz.

If you can’t donate volunteer time or money, FISH accepts unexpired, unopened, perishable and non-perishable food items in addition to personal care products (such as toothpaste, toothbrushes,  hand soap and shampoo), laundry supplies, paper products, diapers and pet food. Items can be donated at FISH’s Walk-in Center, located at 1630-B Periwinkle way on Sanibel.

Walk-in Center hours are June through September, Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and October through May, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

For more information about FISH and how you can help, call 472-4775, e-mail info@fishofsanibel.com or visit www.fishofsanibel.com.