Walter Hanley’s day begins early.
By 5:45 a.m. he and some of the more than 50 people he supervises will be in the Rocky Mountain Development Council kitchen preparing food for delivery to homes and to meal programs at senior centers and similar facilities. Other food that comes from the spotless, stainless steel tables will feed children in Head Start programs during the school year.
Round tables in the Rocky Mountain Development Council lunch room on a weekday at noon are filled with people. It’s mostly an older crowd of folks who, like Hanley at 69, are retired or old enough to be retired.
But retirement isn’t on his horizon. Instead, his days are devoted to his work managing nutrition programs, commodity food distribution and transportation for Rocky Mountain Development Council. Senior nutrition, transportation and the commodity food program are all his responsibility.
While his day is scheduled to end at 2 p.m., it can and does go longer. His dedication, he said, is mirrored in other of the organization’s employees. They, like Hanley, will forfeit unused vacation days because of those who depend on them for each day’s meal.
“I really am passionate about the organization that I work for,” Hanley said. “It does so many wonderful things for so many people. It’s just great to be a part of it.”
“Our leadership here is just outstanding. They feel the same things I do, and their goal is to solve a lot of these problems as is mine. And it’s just a fun place to work.”
Looking at those in the lunch room on this day – the beef stroganoff is paired with a salad bar – he smiled and said it makes him feel good.
“It gives me a real smile that they have the variety of food that they all deserve to have,” he said.
“And they can eat as much of that as they want to; any of it. It’s really cool.”
Worth of his work
Most of his nearly 32 years with Rocky Mountain Development Council have been devoted to the organization’s food programs.
Lunches, which resemble a dinner, are prepared by senior centers or similar facilities in the small towns that dot Broadwater, Jefferson, and Lewis and Clark counties.
While these programs serve this three county area, the commodity food program he administers reaches seven counties.
After years of delivering commodity food every other month, he’s well known. People will stop him to say hello, ask what brings him to their towns. He will soon be back in those communities as a tractor-trailer load of commodity food is being assembled into 80-pound boxes for an upcoming delivery.
Enrollment in the commodity program is based on income. His inquiries leave him astounded, he said, at how people make ends meet with only $300 to $500 a month in Social Security payments.
A woman who relies on the program pushes a wheelbarrow a few blocks from her home to where the food is distributed to collect what she will try to make last until the next delivery in 60 days.
The previous food distribution, he added, amounted to 45,232 pounds. There are no luxuries but instead dietary staples that include cheese, peanut butter, macaroni, spaghetti, rolled oats and corn flakes are part of each 80-pound box as are cans of green beans and tomatoes as well as apricots and peaches, apple juice, canned beef, and milk and instant milk. Each box is given to those enrolled in the program at no charge.
People in Townsend will have been waiting since 8 a.m. for his 10:30 a.m., he said and explained, “It’s so important to them.”
“The people, they get tears in their eyes. They’re so happy to get that food.”
“They always show up. It doesn’t matter what the weather conditions are. It’s really important to them.”
Without the food, some would probably be all right, Hanley said but others “would just be hungry.”
A lot of those who are elderly live alone. Their pets are their loved ones. They will forgo spending on food or medicine to take care of that pet, he said.
“It makes me sad when I see that kind of stuff going on. There’s a lot of it and people will say, ‘we don’t have it here in Helena. We don’t have it in Montana. That’s only in Chicago or wherever. They need to follow me around for a couple of days … to see what goes on with people. It’s really sad, the children and seniors.”
Hanley doesn’t rely on volunteers to ferry food and meals to those in need. Using employees ensures deliveries will be made despite the weather because program clients rely on them.
In fiscal year 2016, which began July 1, 2015 and ended June 30, 2016, 67,056 meals were delivered to homes Monday through Friday, Hanley said. Some of those clients received double meals to get them through the weekend and breakfasts that must last them all week.
Food from the Helena kitchen provided 35,821 meals to people who came to senior centers or sites in small towns in the three counties during the fiscal year.
Head Start programs in Helena, Whitehall and Townsend received breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack that amounted to a little more than 45,000 meals during nine months.
“It’s pretty outstanding and it’s growing all the time,” Hanley said. “Our home delivered program in the last three fiscal years has increased by about 17,000 meals a year because of the number of people.”
Culture of caring
“It’s a great program. The community is so fortunate. And it’s not only the nutritional part of the thing it’s nutritional education, it’s companionship and in home delivered meals we’re checking on people all the time.
“We have instances almost every day where people need medical assistance or whatever and our people are trained that if they’re not there when we take the meal that they need to find out why. And if they can’t, the law enforcement people do a welfare check for us.”
That role can be even more critical for those who live in rural areas, Hanley said and explained that the delivery staff will try to make people in need of medical care comfortable, as best they can, until assistance arrives.
“A lot of these people, we’re the only ones they see during the day. So it’s huge for our community for us to be doing this, keeping track of all these people.”
The nutrition programs, he explained, keep people out of nursing homes by allowing them to remain in their homes.
Two Rocky Mountain Development Council buses he operates bring people to the organization’s kitchen for lunch or takes them to activities or programs where they are volunteering. It provides between 500 and 600 rides a month.
“We just need to expand and a lot of people know that,” he said.
Hanley isn’t at a loss for examples of what the programs he manages do for people and said a bus driver used to pick up a 105-year-old man at his home and bring him to the Rocky Mountain Development Council lunch room each day.
The driver would go in and help him put on a coat and hat for the trip, Hanley added.
Another of his stories involves a woman with a visual impairment who lives at the foot of MacDonald Pass. The person who delivers the daily meal will pick up the woman’s mail and newspaper, he said of the services that have allowed her to remain in her home.
A woman in a rural community who was blind spent her days sitting in a chair and bundled in a coat, surrounded by her two large dogs. The windows of her home wouldn’t close all the way, and she couldn’t keep the home warm in the winter. Her husband had died in military service. Her sons were gone.
“So she basically had nothing and nobody,” Hanley said.
His staff delivered meals to her. The county’s snowplow driver would keep the road to her home open in the winter. But when snow closed it, the local snowmobile club or the sheriff’s office made sure she received her meals, Hanley said.
Once she got comfortable with the delivery person, she’d allow him to take her to the senior center in town once a month for a meal.
“I feel sorry that in our great country that has to go on,” Hanley said. “And I see so much of the sadness from hunger and abuse of children and those kinds of things. It hurts a lot when we have a country like we have. I just feel we need to address it and take care of these people.”