Women Who Serve: Nevada County, California

This week, we are featuring a new series to honor “Women Who Serve.” As we join in on the celebrations and traditions this Thanksgiving, our Women’s Voices writers will share daily stories of the women in their communities who have exemplified a beautiful spirit of service to others. Today, Judie Rae shares the the story of chef BJ Forster and her commitment to creating beautiful meals for those in need in her neighborhood. —Ed.


wvfc forsterBJ Forster at Hospitality House (Photo: Judie Rae)

BJ Forster is a master at planning and cooking meals for 60. Trained at the California Culinary Academy, she worked in restaurants for a few years until finding her true calling— feeding people that are homeless. Hospitality House, a non-profit community shelter for homeless residents of Nevada County, California, is more than pleased to have her on call.  At least once a month, she prepares full course dinners for the 54 residents of the shelter.  The staff often eats with them.

 All of her time is donated, as is the time of her volunteer crew of five. Occasionally, one of the volunteers may not be able to help out, so BJ enlists her husband as a back-up. Not only do the volunteers work together preparing dinners, they also purchase the food, which typically can cost each volunteer over a hundred dollars a month.  Some food is donated by local churches and by two food banks in town, but it is the generosity of volunteers in the community that keeps the food flowing. Grant monies allow Jeff Olson, the kitchen manager, to keep the kitchen supplied with staples such as flour, spices, etc.

 BJ and her crew are just one of 28 volunteer groups, each with its own coordinator, responsible for planning and preparing the meals. Service organizations, local churches, as well as individual community members all pitch in. There are more than 180 individuals who participate. The monthly calendar is organized by Mary Liebke, a long-time volunteer who coordinates which group cooks on what night. To keep it simple, she offers the same night each month to the same group.

A few of the groups have names: “The Third Tuesday Choppers,” “The Night Crawlers,” “The Twisted Sisters,” “The Kitchen Cut-Ups,” and “The Lunch Bunch” are but some of the groups that volunteer their time and energy—and money—toward the cause.

Some of the volunteers are women whose children are grown; many are retired and want to give back to their community. BJ may speak for them as well when she says that while she loves to cook, she also enjoys the camaraderie and working with the volunteers.  “We have fun in the kitchen. There’s satisfaction in knowing our efforts are appreciated.” And many of the residents are quick with a ‘thank you’ for a job well done.

Each year volunteers relinquish their holiday time with family in order to help the homeless. This Thanksgiving, BJ  prepared seven 12-pound donated turkeys that will feed the shelter’s men, women and children. The day before the holiday BJ cut up the turkeys as it’s impossible to cook seven turkeys at once, even in the large commercial oven.  Another woman volunteer plans on bringing her family with her on Christmas Eve to cook for the Hospitality House residents.

wvfc kathleen kellytBJ Forster and Kathleen Kelly  (Photo: Judie Rae)

It takes approximately 20 to 30 pounds of potatoes to feed 60 people, depending upon what’s added to them; that’s a lot of potatoes to peel and prepare for mashing. For a typical evening meal BJ bakes three sheet cakes to feed the crowd dessert. According to BJ, the biggest difficulty the volunteers encounter is finding the proper equipment to process such large amounts of food.

In addition to the actual cooking, there’s the list making and the shopping.  BJ estimates that she spends about eight hours doing the preliminary work and that the preparation and cooking take approximately the same number of hours. (Because of health department regulations, all meals must be prepared on-site.)

After dinner, the guests at Hospitality House are charged with cleaning the kitchen. BJ’s crew, however, usually cleans up after themselves. The kitchen features a large dishwasher, one commercial refrigerator and range, a convection oven, as well as a large freezer to make the volunteers’ jobs a bit easier.

Dietary concerns are taken into consideration.  BJ and other coordinators are quick to note if guests have diabetes or other health issues that prevent the consumption of certain foods. Vegetarians need not worry for there are always meat-free options such as salads and various vegetable dishes.

Unfortunately, homeless populations are growing; increasingly, more people find themselves on a slippery slope toward losing shelter.  It is through the generosity of facilities such as Hospitality House that these people are given a second chance.

 And, it is through the generosity of people such as BJ Forster that facilities such as Hospitality House are able to continue their work. These volunteers are the quiet heroes who ask nothing in return for the hours they spend attempting to make the world a little brighter for those less fortunate.

 It is altogether wondrous and thrilling to know that such people exist.

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  • dawn fischer November 28, 2015 at 11:45 pm

    It’s one of my favorite places to do service, cooking and serving with Betsy Abrams as our team leader is always a trip! I am in awe of how the community supports HH with food donations and time every night of the week.

  • Joanna Robinson November 28, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    Hats off to BJ Forster, Kathleen Kelly, and the hundreds of others who have been performing this service at Hospitality House every night, night after night, over the past ten years—year after year. That kind of generosity and dedication comes only from the compassion of the kindest of hearts. Our community is blessed to have such people in it, as are all communities everywhere. We see a lot of terrible news, but let’s not forget the extraordinary acts of loving kindness that happen around us all the time.