Albertina Kerr volunteers retire after decades of service
After nearly 35 years of spending time at the same place, Betty Sweeney, 94, and Harriet Lesher, 86, had not met once.
But the two would come together in a conversation over coffee about the countless days they spent as unpaid volunteers, with no other job, for Albertina's Kitchen, a restaurant within the Albertina Kerr Center nonprofit, at 424 N.E. 22nd Ave., that provides services to people with mental health challenges and developmental disabilities.
They were both in the kitchen, though worked different shifts and had different duties, and their last days at the restaurant were at the end of August.
Lesher worked on the second and fourth Tuesdays in the pantry, while Sweeney was a cook on the first and third Wednesdays, and fourth Thursdays.
Sweeney started back in 1983.
"I had just retired from teaching. I was a substitute teacher in Portland Public Schools, and I was looking for something to do," Sweeney said. She had a friend who had started with Albertina's at its inception. "I have a degree in home economics so it was right up my alley."
Talking to both Lesher and Sweeney about their many decades of life spent working yet not earning any income can seem shocking in today's world.
They came from a time much different from today's workaholic landscape, gender notwithstanding. In those days, men almost always were the breadwinners and women had their role, well, in a kitchen.
"I didn't work. My husband said, 'stay home and be a mother.' He said, 'If you want to go to work, that's fine, but don't expect me to help you in the kitchen, I've done my bit, and now you're on your own,'" said Lesher, who started at Albertina's in 1981.
Bored, she took a job at a day camp. But after not getting any help, said she decided to leave after a week.
"That was my one paying job," she said. "If I hadn't gotten married, I would've had a job."
She had a degree in psychology from University of Oregon while her husband was a certified public accountant with his own business.
Sweeney graduated from college in 1946, when her sons were starting to leave the nest.
"That's when I decided I needed to do something," Sweeney said.
But before she ended up at Albertina's, she and her husband spent two years in Iran. He was an engineer for Bell Telephone. That company formed a subsidiary under AT&T called American Bell International Inc., and in the 1970s it called on engineers to travel to Iran and help Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran at the time, westernize the communications network there.
"He was nearing retirement, and your retirement depended on your highest salary — and he knew if he went overseas, his salary would rise," Sweeney said. She taught third grade in a small Iranian school while he worked, and said going there was a complete culture shock.
But between 1978 and 1979, they were evacuated following the Iranian Revolution and overthrow of the Shah.
"Pat came home one night and said, 'We gotta get out of here. We'll come back when things quiet down.' They never did," Sweeney said.
They came back to the United States, and Sweeney started working at Albertina's a few years later. When her husband died in 2008, she took on another day of working at the kitchen.
The restaurant is only open for lunch, and Sweeney helped prepare the dishes on the menu, while Lesher poured wine and prepared butter balls.
"It was chaotic, but a lot of fun," Sweeney said. She decided it was time to go, though, following increasingly creaky knees. She stopped playing tennis when she was 91.
"I've got arthritis in my knees and to stand all day, it was just too much. I thought, and at 94, Betty, why not quit while you're ahead — not wait until they ask," Sweeney said.
Lesher for her part started at the restaurant very early on. A childhood friend told her about a "brand-new, all-volunteer restaurant on the east side of the old Kerr Nursery."
Albertina Kerr was an advocate in the early 1900s for Portland's homeless children. She died suddenly in 1911 from typhus and her husband, Alexander Kerr, gave up their family home in Northwest Portland to be used as a nursery in her honor. It provided adoption services and day care. A new building was built in 1921 to accommodate growth, and adoption services stopped in 1967 when the center moved toward foster homes and community care. It now focuses on mental health and developmental disabilities.
"So I knew this place, it was a landmark. ... It had been here forever," Lesher said. Decades and many lunchtime wine pours later, she's still exercising and doing tai chi. She recently had to stop volunteering at the library because she had to start using a cane — meaning she couldn't hold books at the same time.
"But I'm going to do something else, I haven't decided quite what it is yet. I'm going to do some other kind of volunteering," Lesher said. She told herself, "You're not going to go home and just sit. Not going to vegetate. I have to keep moving."
Sweeney is trying to keep moving, too. She has lived in the same three-story house in Northeast Portland for 60 years, but has her eyes on a retirement home.
Despite not ever being friends during their years working at Albertina's, the two bonded over their memories at the restaurant — the high points and low points, different CEOs coming through, and all the fun, and sometimes frustrating, personalities that came through the kitchen. Sweeney loved making the Mile High Cherry Pie.
They learned, too, that they both went to Grant High School, graduating five years apart — narrowly missing each other all through life.
Sweeney and Lesher both wonder if Albertina's Kitchen will be able to get and keep volunteers like them, the "gray hairs" (as Sweeney said) who really stick around.
Who would come after Lesher and Sweeney, practically Albertina celebrities?
"You know, I don't know. It's harder to get volunteers in recent years, because women have jobs and have to work to make ends meet," Lesher said.
Reporter, Portland Tribune
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