Thanks to proximity and a mutually shared passion for service, the partnership between the Thurston County Food Bank and South Puget Sound Community College’s (SPSCC) Automotive Department continues to flourish.

SPSCC Auto Department Car Maintenance
The auto department at SPSCC has long been supporting the Thurston County Food Bank with its quarterly food drive event, “Lights On.”
Photo courtesy: SPSCC

Three years ago, the Thurston County Food Bank extended its reach to a warehouse and distribution center off Mottman Road in Tumwater, directly across the street from SPSCC. Larry Norris has been the program manager for the Automotive Technology Program at SPSCC for 18 years. Norris and the Auto Club at the college host a quarterly community outreach event called Lights On, which provides free oil changes and fluid level checks while giving students a chance to practice their skills in a safe and supportive environment. Customers are asked to provide a food or cash donation when receiving services, which is then donated to the food bank. It was after one of these events that Norris connected with Heather Sundean, operations manager at the food bank’s Tumwater location.

Sundean says the food bank currently has eight vehicles as part of its fleet that are used daily to pick up food from local grocery stores and restaurants that would otherwise be thrown away. That food is then sorted, repackaged, and distributed out of the downtown Olympia Client Services Center. Sundean says last year alone the food bank saved 1.7 million pounds of food from going to the landfill. This noble food rescue mission means the food bank has vehicles that need continual maintenance, which causes a strain on not only the budget, but limited staff resources. That’s when an idea formed between Sundean and Norris.

“Something simple, like an oil change or minor repair, can be a real challenge to take care of when you have a small staff,” Sundean says. “Now that the automotive department is right across the street, we’re able to quickly drop our vehicles off as needed and let Larry and his students work on the car for a far lower price than taking it to a regular commercial auto shop.”

SPSCC Auto Department Service
The unique partnership allows students to work on a broad range of vehicle while contributing to the good of the community. Photo courtesy: SPSCC

Norris says the partnership benefits his department too, as students are able to keep the cars for longer and are given the opportunity to work on specialty vehicles, such as the food bank’s diesel-powered machines or larger box trucks. Sundean says the servicing process is simple. After filling out a form listing the necessary repairs, the department then matches the vehicle with a student who is currently studying that issue as it fits into the curriculum.

“Sometimes when I go over to pick up a vehicle that Larry and his class have been working on, they’ve filled it up with food to be donated,” she says. “It’s just an amazing partnership and has been so helpful to us.”

The partnership between SPSCC and the food bank recently increased with the opening of the SPSCC Food Pantry where free food and hygiene products are offered to students. Food donations made by the SPSCC Automotive Technology Program to the Thurston County Food Bank may make their way back to the shelves of the SPSCC Food Pantry after they are checked for quality control at the local food bank.

Thurston County Food Bank Donation
The Thurston County Food Bank has a fleet of eight vehicles that are used for daily food rescue. Photo courtesy: Thurston County Food Bank

As far as support, Sundean says the food bank is always looking for help in terms or volunteer efforts and of course, food donations. SPSCC has also become a partner in this area. Every year, student athletes provide volunteer work for the local food bank.

In the automotive program, Norris says there is a steady decline in interest in tradework. The auto industry is hurting for technicians and that he is always looking for interested students, regardless of age or experience. The Automotive Technology Program at SPSCC is a two-year program designed to provide entry-level skills in the automotive mechanics field. Students learn to diagnose automotive problems in a practical hands-on shop environment, using state-of-the-art diagnostic and repair equipment. The SPSCC Foundation accepts vehicle donations for use by the automotive program, for more information contact the SPSCC Foundation.

Downtown Food Bank Distribution Hours:
Monday, Wednesday, Friday: 11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
2nd and 4th Wednesday: 5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.

Thurston County Food Bank Vehicles
Last year, the Thurston County Food Bank saved 1.7 million pounds of food from going into the landfill.
Photo courtesy: Thurston County Food Bank

SPSCC Food Pantry Hours:
Tuesday, Wednesday: 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m..
Thursday: 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m..

To donate, click visit the Thurston County Food Bank’s donation page.

Interested volunteers can get more information on the volunteer page.

If you have a vehicle that needs repair, please email automotive@spscc.edu or call 360-596-5320 for more information.

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