Written by Beverly Petrie
Three times a week, Marilyn Garcia drives from her home in Wisconsin to the Valley Outreach building in Stillwater. Sometimes, the bilingual retired teacher translates for Spanish-speaking clients and guides them through the process of selecting food for their families. She is the welcoming face of the organization, the first person a mother or father sees during the sobering process of asking for nourishment for their children.
She typically gives the organization 12 hours of time each week. It’s a volunteer commitment she takes very seriously—rarely failing to go—because she knows how precarious life can be for some of Valley Outreach’s clients. They depend on the food shelf, and Valley Outreach depends on people like Marilyn to keep the gears moving.
Still, her big secret is that she is getting back something she feels is just as sustaining as the fruits, milk and vegetables she gives to the shoppers. Her work for Valley Outreach is feeding her soul.
“The first day I stepped in there, I knew I was going to love it,” Garcia says. “It’s serious, busy and fun at the same time.” She struggles to find the words for the satisfaction she feels when she talks about helping senior citizens on fixed incomes and falling behind or a young father who won’t be paid until Monday and needs to feed his children over the weekend. “I’m just so happy to give them food. I want to make sure they eat.”
After working for more than 40 years in the St. Paul Public Schools, first as a teacher for English Language Learners and later as a guidance counselor, she retired several years ago. A friend urged her to consider volunteering at Valley Outreach. She knew that Marilyn’s language skills would help with the growing number of clients who are not native English speakers. But nursing her husband after a back injury kept her from signing up right away.
One day last year she hauled in a bag of donated clothing and started talking to a staffer, telling him she was interested in volunteering sometime. “How about tomorrow?” he asked. “Yes,” she said.
Her intended assignment was with intake – welcoming people as they come in for services. Her bilingual skills and a lifetime of working as a school counselor made her an ideal candidate, but Marilyn wanted to work the shelves first so she could fully understand the operation and what the people might experience as they came in for help.
She is surprised by how much she enjoys the work and how much she looks forward to her shifts. It’s a real benefit, she says, to work with such a caring staff, both paid and volunteer. One of her idols is another volunteer, Sharon, a buoyant 80-year-old who works nearly constantly at Valley Outreach and once worked in a New Mexico mission in the area where Marilyn grew up.
Her childhood, and a friendship with the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, gives a clue to the reason her need to help others is so powerful. She had an early lesson in how important it can be to lend help to someone in need.
Her early years were spent in a remote area in the mountains around Abiquiú, New Mexico, one of the poorest areas of the country at the time. Her parents were sheep ranchers. When it was time for Marilyn to go to school, her mother insisted that the family switch to cattle ranching so they could be close to town. That would allow Marilyn to attend school at the nearby Mission.
Some time before that, O’Keeffe had purchased a house next to the Mission, and she would often be outside painting. Marilyn and her friends would furtively watch, fascinated by the process, although they had little conception of who she was.
Years later, Marilyn was working in town during the summer after her first year of college. She had been determined to continue her schooling, although it was a financial struggle to do so. As Marilyn headed back to work after lunch, she passed by O’Keeffe’s limousine idling outside the local grocery store. She decided to stop and introduce herself, telling O’Keeffe stories about how she and her classmates had spied on O’Keeffe years earlier.
O’Keeffe invited her to dinner the following Sunday, which began a friendship that they sustained until O’Keeffe’s death in 1986. O’Keeffe was generous with her time and support, paying for the rest of Marilyn’s college education, a pivotal action during a time of struggle in her life. But Marilyn gained much more than a college education from O’Keeffe.
“Through her, I learned how to see trees and rocks and the brown of New Mexico in a way I hadn’t seen before,” Marilyn says.
After graduating from college, she taught briefly in New Mexico before moving to Minnesota and beginning her career with St. Paul Public Schools. As a counselor, part of her job was to provide after-school teaching sessions for students who were homebound for some reason, whether it was illness or caring for a newborn infant.
“That got me into the homes of a lot of different cultures, which I really liked,” she says.
She is now seeing a lot of people from different cultures in her work for Valley Outreach, and she has noticed one other thing during the year she has been volunteering: a tremendous growth in demand for services.
Clients can come in once a month for a routine pickup of food, and they are also able to attend Bonus Fridays, an extra chance for clients to pick up food that has come to Valley Outreach from its generous business donors. Bonus Fridays tend to be busy days at the food shelf. One recent Friday, the organization served 110 families over two hours, making it an exceedingly busy day.
Not that she’s complaining, because it gave her a chance to help 110 parents and children secure food for the weekend. “I do have a passion for people in need,” Marilyn says. “I’ll do anything I can to help them.”