SnowCap Community Charities serves food for the soul
A longtime SnowCap volunteer and board member knows the uncertainty and apprehension when you're not sure where your next meal is coming from.
When he was 13 years old, Bruce Montgomery's parents abandoned him and his twin sister.
Back then there weren't many support systems in place, so Montgomery decided to make his own way so the siblings wouldn't be placed in an orphanage. He worked during the day and took classes at night, while caring for his sister who had health problems. The pair bounced around friends' homes for a difficult stretch of years.
"I would walk into restaurants to see what I could do to help so we could have something to eat," Montgomery said.
Nearly seven decades later Montgomery is helping feed others across his community. He helms, with support from churches and volunteers, SnowCap Community Charities' annual Thanksgiving Day Meal.
On Thursday, Nov. 25, dozens of volunteers fed fellow community members with to-go meals out of The Rockwood Center, 17805 S.E. Stark St. Normally the organization hosts an in-person dinner, but with the ongoing pandemic they instead filled takeaway boxes with all the delicious staples of the holiday — roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, pumpkin pie.
This year they passed out 382 meals, many to single parents with kids in tow, older community members without family nearby, and those whom otherwise wouldn't have anything to put on the table.
"That is the best part, seeing all those faces lining up, especially the little kids," Montgomery said. "There is a lot of good that comes out of this meal. A lot of folks talk the talk, but don't always walk the walk — but here at SnowCap we do both."
Heart to help
Montgomery is a retired church pastor, though he is quick to admit that doesn't mean much for a profession all about connecting with people and having conversations.
"Pastors don't really ever retire," he said with a smile. "People have needs or things they need to talk about, so I always have a minute to spare."
The 82-year-old Gresham resident has always been drawn to smaller churches. He has been a pastor for 60 years — active for 41 ever since his technical retirement in 2005 — and has served in California; Idaho; Spokane, Washington; and eastern Oregon.
"Small churches are like being in a family," he said.
In the 1980s he was assigned to the Pleasant Home United Methodist Church in Gresham. It wasn't his first time in the area, as he used to pick berries and beans in the East Multnomah County farmlands growing up.
"When I first came to Pleasant Home they were passing out lap blankets because we couldn't afford to heat the space," Montgomery said.
That is how he got connected with SnowCap. At the time, the nonprofit food pantry was operating out of church basements across the region, with Pleasant Home being one of the faith groups helping out.
SnowCap provides food and resources to residents from Gresham, East Portland, Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village. Since those early days, the organization has opened a permanent location at 17788 S.E. Pine St., expanded to offer clothing, diapers and more, and is eyeing another expansion for a designated clothing closet.
From the beginning, Montgomery was drawn to the heart of the organization, and was happy to volunteer as much as possible. In addition to the Thanksgiving meal, he also volunteers in the evenings in the food pantry and has served two stints on the board of directors.
"I have always had that same heart for people," he said. "At SnowCap we never turn anyone away who has a genuine need. In my life I have been blessed by many different people, so I can't walk by folks who have needs as well."
One of Montgomery's favorite stories to tell is that of a town in Kansas that was suffering from a drought.
With the crops failing, all the townspeople decided to gather one afternoon to pray for rainfall. As the adults sought relief from the relentless sun, only one young boy thought to bring his umbrella.
"There's optimism for you," Montgomery said with a chuckle. "The negative in life shouldn't be our focus, because the positive will always outweigh that negative."
The first SnowCap Thanksgiving meal took place 27 years ago. Then-director Judy Alley operated the dinner with help from the nonprofit pantry's small staff. But that was too much to ask of the staff that were already stretched thin with their normal duties at the food pantry, and there was talk of shuttering the meal.
"I told Judy we can't shut this down," Montgomery said. "A lot of people won't have anything on Thanksgiving, and most restaurants are closed, so I offered to take over."
So Montgomery took the reins. Normally the Thanksgiving dinner is served restaurant-style, with visitors checking in at the front door, sitting at a table, and choosing between some of the side dishes and desserts.
"We designed it as a restaurant because it lifts the dignity of those who visit," he said.
All the while about 100 volunteers serve and cook to keep the event running smoothly, not to mention the baking and donations that come through in the months leading up to Thanksgiving.
"This meal is self-supported so that we don't take any funds away from SnowCap," Montgomery said.
During those in-person dinners Montgomery said there was a feeling of communal joy. The small kids would play games, with one volunteer making balloon animals and another showing off a turkey hand-puppet.
One older woman, living on a fixed income, came to the dinner for many years in a row. One time she was chatting with Montgomery and told him it was about more than just the food.
"She told me, 'This is better than having relatives come to my house because I have a bigger group to be a part of and all these little kids make me feel young again,'" Montgomery said.
That same passion still surrounds the dinner even though the past two years have had to be to-go with the pandemic. And while Montgomery is the man in charge, he is quick to point to all the other people who make the meal possible.
"I couldn't do this without the graciousness of other people stepping forward," Montgomery said.
In the months leading up, donations flood in to help purchase the food, and local churches buy turkeys and bake pies. Then on the day itself, dozens of people volunteer to keep things running smoothly.
For the Montgomerys, the SnowCap meal has become a family tradition — his wife, Sandy, has been volunteering at the nonprofit pantry for just as long as her husband, and son Mark runs the kitchen every Thanksgiving.
And there is no sign they will be slowing down anytime soon.
"As long as I can do it, I will host this dinner," Montgomery said. "Sometimes my wife will ask if we have done it for long enough, and I will tell her, 'No, I don't think so.'"
"This dinner makes the difference for so many people."
SnowCap Community Charities
Learn more about the Thanksgiving dinner and all the other amazing things SnowCap is doing in the community at snowcap.org
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