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Nourishing The Soul Along With The Body: YWCA Missoula's Cooking Angels
Montana Senior News Feb./March. 2017
If you tend to think of the YWCA mainly in terms of a place to stay physically fit, you might be surprised to learn that not all YWCA’s exist for that purpose. With a mission statement that includes, “eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all,” YWCA Missoula has followed a different road, “the one less traveled” (to quote Robert Frost) for over a century. And that, “has made all the difference” to scores of women, children, and men with nowhere to turn when faced with domestic or sexual violence or discrimination.

Thanks to YWCA Missoula, which serves five counties, these individuals have found reasons to be hopeful about their future along with refuge from abusive situations. As part of their Pathways Program, this YWCA offers shelter, crisis counseling and the support necessary to rebuild a life. Their seven-bedroom haven has a community kitchen, living room, and even a back yard for kids to run and play. Men requiring sanctuary from domestic abuse are provided with a free hotel room.

“Missoula didn’t have a domestic violence safety net when the YWCA started this program in 1977. The shelter can house up to 25 women and children and it’s almost always full. When we have an overflow, we put people up in a hotel,” says Rebecca Pettit, the YWCA’s Volunteer and Outreach Manager. “Women and men are harmed and killed by partners every day. We want people to know we are here for them.”

Although the shelter’s kitchen is stocked with canned goods and staples, Antonia Wolf, a community-minded nurse and photographer, thought these families might appreciate some help when it came to preparing meals. And she was right.

She recruited other local women to buy ingredients and fix dinner for the families and dubbed her volunteers, the Cooking Angels. Four years’ later, a dedicated group of home and professional cooks continue to take turns providing and delivering meals to feed hungry tummies and nurture hearts.

“Sitting around the table together, eating and visiting, gives the families a sense of comfort and security,” says Antonia. “Plus the kids love it. The dinner helps the residents not feel so alone. Rather than go back to their rooms with the food, they feel safe to share a meal and conversation.”

Most of the shelter’s residents depend on food stamps and food banks to stretch their grocery dollars. They also spend much of their day attending counseling sessions, job-searching, and locating affordable housing. Having someone else plan and prepare meals twice weekly was not a necessity; but it certainly has provided a welcome break for these ladies.

“Typically, the Cooking Angels bring satisfying comfort food. Things that are familiar to adults and kids like a homemade rather than a frozen store-bought lasagna. And lots of fruit and veggies,” adds Rebecca. “The residents can live off of that food for a couple of days.”

Volunteers plan to feed 15 but when there are more residents, Rebecca increases the count. While some volunteers cook a dinner specifically for the shelter, others simply double whatever is on the menu at home that evening. They work singly or in pairs to provide the meal, whatever suits their time and pocketbook.

Although it might appear that the only beneficiaries in this situation are the people living temporarily (60 days at most) at the shelter, that is not the case. The program also meets the needs of local women wanting to do something tangible to support struggling families in their community.

“The Cooking Angels really have helped give back to these women at the lowest point in their lives,” states Rebecca. “While going through this trauma, they can focus on getting into housing and filling out applications. The meals, as well as the caring behind them, adds important substance to the program.”

As Antonia says, “It means so much to these women to realize that someone they don’t know cares enough about them to provide a hot meal. This food nourishes not just the body but the soul as well.”
 
How Can You Help?
 
The YWCA always needs:
•       Household items—cleaning supplies, toiletries, blankets, sheets, pots and pans either new or in good condition.
•       Gasoline cards or gift cards.
•       Pantry staples—sugar, flour, salt, pasta, rice, etc.
•       Ready-to-eat or -prepare foods with a long shelf life such as canned soups, boxed mixes, and healthy kids’ snacks.
•       Financial support.
•       High-quality fresh produce.
•       Volunteers to occasionally fill in for scheduled Cooking Angels.
 
For more information about Pathways, call 406-543-6691 or visit: http://ywcaofmissoula.org.
 
For more information about the Cooking Angels, email antonia@montana.com or call 406-542-6608.
 
For a list of other shelters and victim services around Montana, visit the website for the Montana Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence at mcadsv.com.