Youth miss opportunity to help Skagit County farmworkers, but outreach continues

  • Written by Nathan Whalen
  • Published in Local
Volunteers at the Tri-Parish Food Bank, located at St. Charles Parish in Burlington, organize food donations that will be distributed to Skagit Valley families in need. Photo: Courtesy Tri-Parish Food Bank Volunteers at the Tri-Parish Food Bank, located at St. Charles Parish in Burlington, organize food donations that will be distributed to Skagit Valley families in need. Photo: Courtesy Tri-Parish Food Bank

BURLINGTONDuring a typical summer, hundreds of Catholic youth from parishes around the archdiocese travel to St. Charles Parish to help migrant farmworkers in Skagit County.

COVID-19 means the students can’t participate in the Youth Migrant Project this summer, but outreach to the farmworkers continues, both in person and from afar.

Parishioners at St. John Vianney Parish in Kirkland have collected about 2,400 homemade cloth masks from as far away as Tennessee and Arizona for farmworkers, said Susan Weaver, the parish’s outreach minister.

“People just really want to help,” she said, noting that some parishioners have traveled to Burlington to help at the Tri-Parish Food Bank, located at St. Charles.

Usually, St. John Vianney partners with St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Woodinville to send a couple dozen middle schoolers to the Youth Migrant Project, where they spend a week assisting migrant farmworker families and learning more about the realities and needs of the poor.

“The kids are disappointed they can’t go up this year,” Weaver said, but the parish is looking for service projects a little closer to home that can occur when social distancing requirements ease.

In the Skagit Valley, volunteers and advocates continue helping farmworkers with food, housing and other needs.


Drivers wait in line with the trunks of their vehicles popped open so volunteers at the Tri-Parish Food Bank can place food donations right inside. The food bank, located at St. Charles Parish in Burlington, is helping about 1,000 families weekly. Photo: Courtesy Tri-Parish Food Bank

Jose Ortiz, a network builder for Catholic Community Services of Western Washington and director of the CCS Farmworker Center in Mount Vernon, has been busy reaching out to farmworkers to inform them about COVID-19.

It’s difficult to determine the number of migrant farmworkers in Skagit County, he said, but volunteers have distributed some 20,000 masks at migrant camps and food banks in the area.

“We’ve been finding people who are sick and taking food for them,” Ortiz said.

Because of COVID-19 social distancing requirements, fewer people can live in the migrant camps, Ortiz explained, so he is working with the Skagit Housing Authority and other organizations to find more housing.

When the state started shutting down in March because of COVID-19, the Tri-Parish Food Bank saw a tenfold increase in people seeking help — from 200 families to more than 2,000 families, said Ortiz, who was the food bank’s director for nearly 30 years and whose wife, Lilia Ortiz, is the current director. Although the numbers have decreased, some 1,000 families continue needing food assistance, Jose Ortiz said.

Now operating on a drive-through basis each Saturday, the Tri-Parish Food Bank requires 50 volunteers to organize and carry out the weekly distribution, Lilia Ortiz said.

Meeting the increased demand has been possible because of food and money donated by local residents. “We are very blessed with the community,” she said.