A big coin recognizing labors of love and caring was given to Sue Nagel and Virginia Good-Vlahovich for their long time commitment to the Helping Hands Solution Center in Sedro-Woolley. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates created the "Challenge Coins" to honor community doers of good deeds.   – Photo courtesy of Virginia Good-Vlahovich
A big coin recognizing labors of love and caring was given to Sue Nagel and Virginia Good-Vlahovich for their long time commitment to the Helping Hands Solution Center in Sedro-Woolley. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates created the "Challenge Coins" to honor community doers of good deeds. – Photo courtesy of Virginia Good-Vlahovich

Snee-Oosh area resident Sue Nagel and La Conner High alum Virginia Good-Vlahovich have invested much time and energy into helping combat food insecurity in Skagit County. 

Those efforts paid off in a big way – with a public tribute from former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates July 17. 

Gates passed out “Challenge Coins” bearing his name and a national seal to honor their volunteer work at Helping Hands Solution Center in Sedro-Woolley, the largest direct emergency food provider in Skagit County, serving 1,000 or more families each week. 

Nagel and Good-Vlahovich are Helping Hands board officers. 

A 1975 La Conner High grad, Good-Vlahovich has been a Helping Hands board member for 17 years and its treasurer since 2006. 

Despite his lofty resume – Gates was Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and President of Texas A&M University – the Big Lake resident quietly goes about public service in his retirement, Good-Vlahovich told the Weekly News. 

“Robert Gates is actually a very quiet man,” she said. “He loves Skagit County and moved here after his retirement. He’s a firm believer that the food banks help people and he supports that.” 

Gates also honored National  Guard members who have been working at Helping Hands along with food bank officers Nagel, Good-Vlahovich, Karl DeJong and Rebecca Larsen who have previously served in the military. 

Guard personnel are scheduled to be re-deployed to assist at COVID-19 test sites and with other assignments related to stemming spread of the coronavirus. Their work at Helping Hands has been much appreciated, Good-Vlahovich said. 

“Secretary Gates was asked for advice on who we needed to ask to get the Guard to stay longer,” said Good-Vlahovich, who has been with Safeway, Inc. for nearly 30 years and also is a longtime volunteer at the Open Door Community Kitchen and has served on the boards of the Sedro-Woolley Farmers Market and Skagit County Pioneer Association and is a member of the Billikens Club of La Conner. 

Gates stressed the importance of efforts to battle hunger in the Skagit Valley. 

“He wanted everybody to know,” Good-Vlahovich said, “that they had made such a difference in so many lives that he believed they deserved to receive his coin.”