After 34 years at Northwest Harvest, Executive Director Ruth Velozo is retiring at the end of this month. She says she will listen to God to show her where he wants her next: “There is still much to be done.”
Hundreds of people crowding Seattle’s Bell Harbor Conference Center on June 8 to celebrate her accompishments at a retirement party said Velozo had done more than anyone believed possible during her tenure at the organization started in 1967 as Ecumenical Metropolitan Ministry.
The organization has brought together organizations trying to make a difference across many faith communities, including Jewish Family Service, which is one of 287 food banks that get food from Northwest Harvest.
Northwest Harvest board member Robert Simon, who has known Velozo for about 15 years, said that Northwest Harvest has played a large role in the Jewish community and vice versa. Morris Pollock, who was instrumental in starting the food bank at Jewish Family Service that is now named for him, helped find a warehouse for Northwest Harvest, to house large quantities of food.
“The food multiplied,” said Velozo. “It is still multiplying.”
JFS has been a Northwest Harvest food recipient for eight years. Simon was involved in getting the JFS and Northwest Harvest together.
“All faiths from all over the world we’ve seen here,” said Velozo. “I have met many Jewish families.”
Acme Poultry’s Eddie Shain, who is also Jewish, was the first to get meat distributed to the food banks. Shain said that Velozo taught him how to be a tough, hard-nosed buyer.
“I wish you the best in your retirement,” Shain said.
“Ruth, today we’re celebrating you and all your accomplishments,” said Patricia Barcott, Northwest Harvest board president, at the celebration.
Seattle’s Deputy Mayor Tom Meyers, proclaimed June 8, 2001 “Ruth Velozo Day in Seattle” on behalf of Mayor Paul Schell, who had to leave early. Meyers said the most striking thing Ruth had ever told him was that she hoped someday she would open the food bank and no one would come.
“For my entire life, I always wanted to be just like her,” said Velozo’s daughter Tina, the youngest of five children. “This here today, this is your legacy,” she said to her mother.
When Velozo, 72, started her position, she expected it to be temporary. “After 34 years, I have successfully completed the task given to me,” she said. “Now it’s time to step aside and allow new interchanges. It’s time for me to look over to other things that I can do.”
Compared to Mother Theresa by her co-workers, Velozo has spent a big portion of her life caring for the needy.
“Everybody thought she was nuts,” said Bill Yeend, formerly of KIRO, who interviewed Velozo for the first time in the 1970s and said she has come to prove all of the skeptical journalists wrong.
During the celebration, a film about Northwest Harvest, called “When Hunger Meets Hope,” was shown. “One in eight Washington households are at risk of going hungry tonight,” said the film.
“No one should be deprived of food,” said Velozo. “Food feeds the body. Kindness feeds the spirit.”
Northwest Harvest was the birth of food banks, said Velozo. “We started out from ground zero.”
“We were pioneers in developing this program,” she said.
Ecumenical Metropolitan Ministry was started by Seattle area churches at 10th Ave. E. in the basement of the Episcopal Church basement, to reach out to the poor. Velozo was the only woman involved in the group when it started in 1967.
Today, Northwest Harvest provides 16.5 million pounds of food per year. This year, Northwest Harvest served 283 hunger programs throughout the state.
During her years of service, Velozo has learned these lessons: Not to be impatient, not to raise her expectations and not to have an ego. She said she would like the person filling her position as executive director to hold the mission and the values of Northwest Harvest and feed the people.
Velozo’s official last day at Northwest Harvest is on July 31.
At the end of the celebration, the Northwest Harvest Board gave Velozo a trip to London, Jerusalem and Istanbul.
“You’re sending me to clergy school,” joked Velozo in response. She asked if they had found a 75-year-old man to go with her.