Anthony Airhart’s story is almost a textbook Harbor tale. A fourth-generation Harborite, he spent more than 30 years working for Weyerhauser and raised a family in Aberdeen. But when the Cosmopolis Pulp Mill closed in 2006, he transitioned into peer outreach, pursued his educational opportunities, and eventually became the executive director of Coastal Harvest.
“If you looked for a food bank director, I certainly wasn’t it,” Airhart said of his transition to director of the food distribution warehouse. “But if you broke down the job into components, I had a lot of experience.”
Airhart took the mill’s closure and used it to start himself on a winding road to what he calls his “passion.”
“A job, not a career”
After graduating from Aberdeen High School in 1973, Airhart went to Grays Harbor College and Western Washington University. He earned an associate’s degrees in history and biology from Grays Harbor and majored in history and education during his time at Western. After a few quarters there, he came back to the Harbor to work for Weyerhauser.
“It was certainly a good job. When I worked there I felt I had a job, not a career. To switch to Coastal Harvest, it’s almost like a passion, not a career,” Airhart said.
During his nearly 31 years at the mill, he bounced around from journeyman boiler mechanic to safety planner to vibration analyst. He earned his bachelor’s degree in community leadership from The Evergreen State College in 2000.
“I think because it wasn’t a good fit I was always looking for something else,” he said.
Then the company announced the mill would close, laying off its 245 employees. Airhart transitioned to peer outreach to help his coworkers into new careers. He pursued his own education even more, taking online classes in construction supervision and estimating, and attending Centralia College, earning another associate’s degree in energy technology.
Finding a new path
Airhart was briefly able to fulfill a longtime wish of teaching when an opening came up at Grays Harbor College’s General Educational Development program. He said he loved the work, but the instability of a part-time teacher made it unrealistic for a new career.
“I enjoyed trying to make the light bulbs go on. Many of these students either didn’t learn well in a traditional classroom environment or had bad experiences that colored their opinions of school or themselves. So I’d try and find different ways to pique their interest or get them into a subject from a new angle. You could physically see when something connected — the eyes lit up and you could imagine that light bulb over their head coming on,” Airhart recalled, calling the job both frustrating and rewarding. “It just wasn’t a good fit long-term.”
Then, out of the blue, Airhart noticed an ad for running Coastal Harvest. It wasn’t something he’d ever contemplated before, and he had never worked for a non-profit or a food bank. But with the experiences he’d gained, particularly as a safety planner and teacher, he decided to take a shot.
“I looked at the job description and thought, ‘I could do that,’ ” he said. He convinced the board he had the right stuff and took over in 2010.
Airhart credits his parents with instilling a sense of service early on.
“They were the type that raised their hands when something needed done. You don’t wait for someone else to do it,” he said.
He had carried on that dedication with various service efforts over the years, including coaching youth basketball and leading Boy Scouts, but confronting community hunger was an eye-opening departure.
“I’m a fourth-generation Harborite — I thought I knew my community,” Airhart said. “I didn’t have a clue.”
The food distribution warehouse operates much like a food bank equivalent of Costco: The non-profit supplies free food to more than 50 food banks, senior centers, tribal centers and feeding programs through Grays Harbor, Pacific, Lewis, Thurston, Mason and Wahkiakum counties. It operates its own warehouse and trucks based in Hoquiam, and aims to use donated funds more effectively by buying in bulk and negotiating discounts.
Airhart credits the board of directors, staff and volunteers with the operation’s success, praising everyone’s ability to come together as a team.
“They have big hearts and they believe in what they are doing and it shows in the excellent work they do every single day. And the volunteers are wonderful and absolutely critical to our ability to serve the agencies we do,” Airhart wrote in an email.
Board member Barbara Bennett Parsons has high praise for the executive director. When the position became available, she recalls, “I looked at it and thought, ‘My goodness, who are they going to get to do that?’ ” she said with a laugh. “He was sent from heaven. It’s a perfect fit.”
She says Airhart has brought to the organization “more than I ever thought possible, really. It requires a great deal of skill in many areas. He not only has to run the day-to-day operations, but then he’s always got to be putting the message out there about who we are and what we do and why this is so important. And that takes someone who can make a presentation and share that passion,” Bennett Parsons said.
She particularly remembered Airhart worrying about the food bank in Queets, wondering how they were getting enough food because he hadn’t heard from them at Coastal Harvest. He made some calls and discovered the staff and volunteers were making a long, weekly trip to Port Angeles to get food.
“So now we’re sending trucks up to Queets. They’re not having to go up there and beg for it the way they were before,” Bennett Parsons said, because of Airhart’s dedication. That same devotion can be seen in everything he does at Coastal Harvest, she said.
“He’s passionate about it. This is what matters most in the world to him, I’m sure other than his family. This is where his … interest and passion are. And thank goodness, because the warehouse pretty much thrives and fails according to the executive director. We could be limping along, taking what people think to send our way down to old Grays Harbor. And what we would be providing people would be a minuscule portion of what we give them, because we don’t wait around for leftovers.”
Coastal Harvest distributes about four million pounds of food every year, organized and moved by dedicated volunteers and staff.
“People are going to read that and think they have a comprehension” of what that means, Airhart said, but for him, his first time walking into the food warehouse was daunting in its revelation of the scale of hunger on the Harbor.
One in five people on Grays Harbor is food insecure, meaning that they don’t always know where their next meal will come from. That includes one in four children.
“Go out in your community and count kids,” Airhart advised. “Look into the face of every fourth kid and think, ‘I’m sending that kid home hungry.’ You can’t do that — it’s not right.”
“There are hungry among you,” Airhart said. “The problem is huge and the community needs to know about it and what they can do.”
Utility bill charity
Aberdeen utility customers may have noticed an option on their bills to donate to Coastal Harvest when they pay their regular bill. Airhart cites that project, based on an idea from his wife (which he claims most of his best work comes from), as the most important project for Coastal Harvest.
It turned into a complicated proposition: Adding such an option to a utility bill required an act of the Legislature. He said all the area representatives were very supportive of the project.
“I thought that would be the hardest part, but as it turned out, convincing individual cities of its value” was an unexpected challenge, Airhart said.
It’s not that any officials have opposed it or that they weren’t supportive of helping the hungry, he’s quick to explain, it’s just that making the extra effort in monthly billing doesn’t make it to the top of the priorities list easily with ever-dwindling resources and staff time.
“People in rural districts have always taken care of their neighbors. The key is finding a way to make that easy,” Airhart said.
Staring down a fresh electric bill may not be the moment people are most inclined to be charitable, but Airhart stressed anything helps. A dollar can do a lot with Coastal Harvest’s bulk buying power.
“People who can’t afford to give much, but who give that dollar every month — if we get enough people to do that, it’s huge. It’s a different way of giving,” Airhart said.
For people whose cities haven’t gotten on board yet, Airhart asks for this by way of contribution:
“They need to talk to their elected officials and tell them they want this to happen,” he said.
The criticism he hears of giving to food banks, from the Legislature down to people he meets in the grocery store, is that there are people who aren’t truly in need who take advantage of the charity. Airhart acknowledges there is probably always going to be a certain percentage of people who cheat the system, but insists that’s not a reason to ignore the much larger portion of people in real need.
“I absolutely feel you ignore that percentage, because you can’t do anything about it and the rest are so deserving it more than makes up for it.”
It’s easy to hear the passion in Airhart’s voice as he talks about the overwhelming need of his hungry neighbors throughout the region. Having seen it, looking away isn’t an option for him.
Asked how he unwinds after his work with the non-profit, he admits, “I don’t know that I do. I don’t know that I go an hour without thinking about it.”
But if he’s not thinking about Coastal Harvest, it’s probably because he’s thinking about his family.
He calls his wife his “perfect match.” The pair met during a seminar class for Evergreen and have been married seven years. He remembers admiring the direct but kind way she would set people straight if she thought they were wrong or off track.
“I really loved her sense of humor and wit,” Airhart said. “She’s one of the smartest people I know. She has this ability to look at a problem and pull the essence right out.”
He credits Laurie with helping him untangle tough problems he faces at work and elsewhere.
“One of my kids teased you could watch us go around a store and we’d pick up the same things,” he said with a laugh.
Between the pair, there are four children and three grandchildren. Airhart said being “a great Poppa” tops his list of priorities these days.
“If you have some, there is no reason for me to explain what they mean to me. If you don’t have some, there’s no way I can,” he said.
Still, he tries: He talks about trying to etch every detail into his memory as they grow too fast, of learning and loving the unique banter and games he shares with each child, and how different it is from raising his own children. He loved and cherished them just as much, he explains, but without the worries of raising and supporting them, it’s a different experience. He visibly brightens and relaxes as he talks about them.
Another favorite way to unwind is working on his property on the tractor his wife bought him, which his granddaughter quickly named Rose.
Later she confided in him, “she was a little worried — it wasn’t a very manly name for a tractor,” Airhart said with a laugh.
He and his wife love traveling, especially road trips. They count Jamaica, New England and Yosemite National Park among their many destinations, and look forward to exploring Banff and the Canadian Rockies soon. But he doesn’t see himself ever completely retiring, even if a trip or two has to wait.
“I would be greatly disappointed in myself, having seen the impact volunteers have …” He trails off, his mind briefly wandering to all that food in the warehouse, moved by so many volunteers. He comes back to his thought, finishing it simply: “If I ever fail to give back, I would hope someone would wop me on the head.”
For more information about Coastal Harvest, including how to donate to or volunteer, visit coastalharvestwa.org or call 532-6315.