The Two Joys of Lewistown
Updated: Nov 29, 2019
I spent a few days in Lewistown this week getting to know the community and making connections with people who are committed to making Montana a better place.
As I travel across the state, volunteering at local organizations, knocking on doors and meeting voters, I rarely splash images on Facebook or Twitter but every community has a great story and I’d like to share the story of the good work being done by a committed group of individuals in Lewistown nearly every day.
Along with having a lifetime career in publishing and public service, I also followed a personal passion for some time and trained and worked as a professional chef in Montana before and after finishing a cooking apprenticeship out of state. I continue to enjoy cooking, even if I’ve now traded the 80-hour workweeks on my feet for a desk job in publishing.
It’s easy for me to walk in a professional kitchen and get right to work, especially as a volunteer. For some time, I worked as a volunteer in the kitchens of the Livingston Food Resource Center in Livingston. Every Thursday I would join the kitchen staff and a handful of volunteers responsible for making sure no one in Park County went hungry in preparing and serving meals.
Working in kitchens can be back-breaking labor and the hours are long. Running a kitchen takes the ability to multi-task on a level most people cannot comprehend. Chefs, cooks and kitchen helpers work long hours and rarely receive health insurance or benefits and the hours and low pay often lead people to use and abuse drugs and alcohol to cope with the stress while their health breaks. Nevertheless, Montana has a robust food service work industry and I’ve been lucky to meet and work with some of the best chefs and cooks in the state, people who inspire others to use their talents to feed communities of people and foster a work environment that is healthy and encouraging.
In many communities, locally-sponsored food pantries, soup kitchens and similar organizations provide meals and sustenance for the most vulnerable people in our state. Seniors, those with disabilities and children often struggle with hunger in Montana. We are a state of plenty, where 64% of our land is utilized for agriculture and cost and preparation of meals should be within the reach of every citizen. It’s a sad commentary on our state that so many still go hungry every night in Montana but it’s not for a lack of committed individuals and organizations working to alleviate hunger across the state.
The Fergus County Council on Aging has two Joys, both working to contribute to alleviating hunger in their community. One Joy runs the kitchens at the Council on Aging in Lewistown, arriving at 3 or 4 a.m. every weekday morning to start prepping meals for the eager seniors and others who depend on a daily meal from the organization. Although Joy’s day often lasts a full 12 or 14 hours, she manages a staff of paid helpers and volunteers, many of them disabled and working in spite of their disability. Joy has a special relationship with the individuals in her kitchen. One worker, a young man with Down Syndrome, often stops at her station where Joy might be chopping a mound of onions or stirring a pot of soup and hugs her.
“He asked me if I could be his mom at work and when I said yes, he just got so excited!’" Joy tells me. The young man stops at Joy’s work station for his third hug in a few minutes.
“Remember, if you give too many hugs, they’re not as special,” she tells him gently and he nods seriously and gets back to his work. Joy is a joy in the kitchen, delegating tasks and keeping the work moving, regardless of the many levels of ability apparent in her staff, until the showtime of the noon meal. On the day I worked in the kitchen with her, she was coordinating the effort to feed about 50 seniors on-site for the lunch hour and box up Meals on Wheels a few days before Thanksgiving.
She and her co-worker, also named Joy, trade cooking tips and strategy as they work together. The two met while working a senior care facility in Lewistown decades ago and have been friends and colleagues ever since. Working together in the Council on Aging kitchen, they banter and joke as they finish tasks to prepare and serve the daily meal and make dishes for the larger Thanksgiving meal the next day which is expected to draw 100 people to the center.
Along with the two Joys, a number of volunteers help in the kitchen and deliver Meals on Wheels for the county. In all, the Fergus County Council on Aging delivers nearly 35,000 meals every year to the elderly and needy. Of the nearly dozen individuals who work in and out of the kitchens, only a handful are paid, but volunteer hours are matched with funds for the organization.
Within the course of the day, I peeled two buckets of potatoes and three dozen eggs for a savory sweet potato salad recipe, I filled a large tub with cranberry sauce and deep-cleaned a few stations in the kitchen. After the dishwashers were released, I kept the dish pit spic and span and by the end of the day, when a group of four women were left picking and prepping 18 roasted turkeys for the big meal the next day, kitchen manager Joy asked me if I wanted a full-time job.
“If you come back to help us again, I’m going to call you ‘Wonder Woman!’” Joy says. In my eyes, she is the Wonder Woman. Every day that she wakes up and goes to her job, she works for more than a paycheck. She works to feed the hungry while appreciating the abilities of the volunteers and staff in the kitchen, which is a hard enough task in a commercial restaurant with a paid staff of cooks. While a kitchen manager must be tough and results-oriented, Joy is an authority with real heart and compassion for those whom she works with and serves.
So many folks working at the Council on Aging are doing so to give back to the community. In a world where many often get discouraged by news of political corruption, burgeoning wars, or conflicts and unfairness, working for a day within an organization dedicated to serving others is a balm for the soul and being surrounding by others who inspire with their selflessness is comforting. One tends to get the feeling that if we all pitch in with our best intentions in this world, everything is going to be okay, everyone will get fed and we can work together to solve problems and take care of one another.
I’m thankful today for the opportunity to work with the Council on Aging in Lewistown and getting to spend the day with a team of such dedicated community members. I look forward to working with and learning from similar organizations across the state and returning next month to Lewistown to help deliver Meals on Wheels.
In my campaign for Governor of Montana, I plan to visit many other organizations across the state where I can pitch in and learn about the good work being done by the best people in Montana: our volunteers. I encourage all Montanans, if they don’t do so already, to volunteer for an organization that can utilize your unique skills. Just one or two days a month of donated work can make a world of difference in these organizations and help foster a sense of community.
To those across the state working to feed the hungry and less fortunate in their community, Thank You! No one in Montana should have to go hungry and thanks to your efforts, fewer are. I admire those working and volunteering to set an example for our state of compassion, care and selflessness and I aspire to celebrate their work and join their efforts.