A “Coalminer’s Daughter”
Retiring from Community Service at 99
Less than a month shy of her 99th birthday, Billie Stenson has retired after many years of devoted service at Annie’s Community Kitchen.
Born at the close of World War I, Billie was born on August 3, 1918 in Roundup Montana. Living through 2 World Wars and The Great Depression, Billie has seen her share of hardship. But she has certainly had her fill of happy memories too.
“My father was a coalminer and had his own mine. I remember him taking me with a tin hat and headlamp down to the mine when I was a little five-year old. One day, he went into the bank to withdraw funds and found the banks doors were chained up. The bank closed and they had lost all their money, including my father’s life savings. In one afternoon, we found we had lost everything, my father lost the mine and we were destitute.”
Billie and her daughter in 1946
But people took care of each other, explained Billie, a kindly neighbor in Great Falls had a one-room shack behind her house and she invited Billie’s family of four (her mother, father and sister) set up house in the shack “for as long as needed….if it wasn’t for the kindness of our neighbor, we might have been sent to a poor farm” (residences where people who had faced hard time, elderly and disabled, were supported at public expense). Such hard times, Billie recalled with a smile on her face as if these tests reaped joyful results. “My sister and I had three dresses we shared between us, I would wear one, she the other, and the third would be washed. We were dirt poor, but we all took care of each other, everyone did back then.”
Her friends at Annie’s Kitchen, many who are not so much younger agree that this generation that endured some incredibly difficult times actually benefited from an unexpected, yet collective quality of tenacity, gratitude and above all, compassion. Rozella Kleven, a long-time volunteer and member of Edmonds Lutheran Church said, “Younger generations need to hear stories like Billie’s, she has so much to share, not only about the history of our country but about our values…like hard work, loyalty and looking out for one another.”
It seems that this sense or camaraderie brought about by years of taxing events nurtured compassion and empathy in Billie that would grow as the years passed.
Billie and her sister would grow up to both pursue higher education with Billie earning three year certificate in business. Both sisters would receive full scholarships from the National Youth Association. Billie would go on to work for the Social Security Administration and later on in life for the Medicare Administration. “All my life I never had a birth certificate or a Social Security card. I remember it made me so happy to issue these documents to myself,” she explained with a laugh. “I had married Mr. Stenson by then, but when filling out the paperwork for my Social Security card, I listed my name as ‘Billie Buckley’, not ‘Billie Stenson’, I didn’t want my initials to be ‘B.S.!’” This confession was declared with roars of laughter from everyone at the table but Billie turned to me and urged “Don’t write that down!” She also warned me – with a twinkle in her eye – not to include her witty declaration that her favorite part of volunteering at Annie’s Kitchen was “the men!” Billie’s lively sense of humor is something that she has clearly crafted to perfection over the years.
Billie’s career took off, and she would run the regional office of Medicare, overseeing four different states; Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. “When Social Security in 1938, I remember the payment doled out was $14.99 per month. That was good money! You could buy a whole lot of things for a dollar back then….” She started working in 1954 and continued working full time for another 30 years and would finally retire in 1983.
Many years later, well into her nineties, Billie would become restless and sense a divine “nudge” to go back to work….at Annie’s Community Kitchen. Billie has been volunteering her time at Annie’s Kitchen faithfully and diligently for 7 years. She has invested hundreds upon hundreds of hours to ensure that a free, hot and nutritious meal will be served every Wednesday night at Edmonds Lutheran Church. The meal is entering is 12th year and feeds nearly 200 people every week.
Billie and her friends at Annie’s Kitchen
Starting to feel a bit worn on the threshold of a century, Billie now enjoys sitting with a group of other ladies, rolling silverware in napkins, drinking coffee and talking about the good old days. Attempting to calculate just how much she has done over the years at the kitchen, her friends determined that Billie has rolled 67,200 napkins of silverware over the years! Wednesday afternoons highlights also consist of the many hugs that Billie will give an receive from an array of volunteers, everyone from a lovely group of Mormon missionaries that come to help every Wednesday to young men who are ordered by drug court to complete community service hours. “Four hugs a day…everyone needs it. I feel these young men are all my grandsons.”
“Billie is one in a million,” declared long-time friend Bonnie Clarke. She’s not just an Annie’s Kitchen friend, she’s a friend for life.”
Billie feels like-minded, saying, “Bonnie and Jimmy (Bonnie’s son) pick me up and bring me here very week. They haven’t missed once….I am sure going to miss this family.”
“Billie hit the nail on the head when she said that this is her family,” declared Bob Snyder, one the founders of Annie’s Kitchen. It’s one of the fringe benefits of coming together to prepare this meal, week after week, year after year. Somehow we all have come to feel like a family. Billie will be sorely missed, but she will always be family.”
Tim Oleson, pastor at Edmonds Lutheran Church said, “Billie is such a great example of someone doing their small part to make a difference in people’s lives. It’s not glamorous or even noticed that often, but it is people like her who make big differences in our world.”
“…..Just precious.” was another loving accolade from fellow parishioner, Merrilyn Morrison.
As Billie looks forward to a much deserved rest, and anticipating a 100th birthday next year, Billie will enjoy “retiring in style” at Fairwinds Brighton Court in Lynnwood.