Comfort, Communion, Confidence

New YWCA 'I Feel Good' Program Teaches Residents Healthier Lifestyle Choices

Women and their children trickled into the recently remodeled Murel O’Connell Kitchen and Dining Room at YWCA Helena. The aroma of yellow curry, green beans, cauliflower and rice filled the air.

Soon, the room bustled. Laughter and light conversation echoed off the walls as residents discussed their days and anticipated a balanced and savory meal prepared by volunteer chef Joanie More. As More dished up plates for the YWCA residents enrolled in the WINGS Transitional Housing program, she reveled in the energy around her.

“It’s almost like Thanksgiving every evening,” said More, who owns Murry’s Café in downtown Helena. “Coming together as a community and sitting down at the table together is so important. Having a good meal makes people feel happy and good about themselves.”

It was a meaningful moment of normalcy, comfort and communion amongst a sometimes-chaotic life.

WINGS, which stands for Women Initiating New Growth and Stability, provides a furnished bedroom with shared bathrooms, a full kitchen and common areas for up to 12 women and their children. While enrolled in the program, residents work with case manager Liz Samson to manage their mental and physical health, and develop life skills as they search for long-term, sustainable housing.

The homemade meals served every weekday night, however, are part of the I Feel Good initiative made possible by a $25,000 Healthy Kids, Healthy Families® (HKHF) Nutrition Grant awarded to YWCA Helena by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana (BCBSMT) in early 2017. In its first year, the program served 47 women and 48 children, providing more than 130 meals.

The women love getting together for dinner. It's just a great time to talk to people and hear about their day. … Food can be very healing and therapeutic, and cooking can be, too.

“The women love getting together for dinner,” said YWCA Helena Program Director Kiley Gage, who added that many of the women are eager to help prepare meals, too. “It’s just a great time to talk to people and hear about their day. … Food can be very healing and therapeutic, and cooking can be, too.”

On Thanksgiving, residents took the reins and cooked their own meal to celebrate. It was a new experience as many program participants associate the holidays with what they don’t have – a special meal, not getting presents – and, unfortunately, what they do have – fighting, stress or substance abuse, Gage said.

“It is really amazing,” Lorena Silverthorne said about the I Feel Good initiative. “Thanksgiving was really fun. We all sat down to the table, and it was really the best.”

She and her fellow residents, however, said their favorite meals are prepared by volunteer Joe Roberts every Tuesday evening.

“He makes really fancy meals and desserts, and they look as good as they taste,” Silverthorne said. “You don’t want to miss Tuesdays.”

“They’re all here when Joe cooks,” said Samson, who works with volunteers to plan the meals. “All of the dinners are just really nice. You can just relax and talk about whatever comes to mind, whether it’s something serious or the latest episode of The Bachelor.”

Kelly Goodwin McBride, director of Restorative Justice and Court Services for Lewis and Clark County, recently left YWCA Helena after nine years as executive director. She emphasized that many residents, prior to the I Feel Good initiative, regularly ate fast food and were only concerned about getting the most calories for the least amount of money and not how to get the best fuel for their body with the least amount of money.

“We had always wanted to have a meals program. I pitched it, but I truly had no idea how incredibly successful it would be,” Goodwin McBride said. “If I had known it’d be this successful, I would have pushed years ago to get this going. … It was just kind of always a dream that was off to the side. But it’s integrated in everything that we do now.”

More, who has a longtime relationship with YWCA Helena and has hired residents at Murry’s Café, also helped Gage launch the I Feel Good initiative by providing grocery shopping and meal planning advice for large groups.

Money from the HKHF grant also provides exercise and educational opportunities. These include preparation for the BCBSMT Governor’s Cup and Montana Women’s Triathlon in June, yoga and other indoor physical activities, nutrition-focused movie nights with homemade popcorn, grocery store tours and wellness screenings.

YMCA Helena residents are often dealing with poverty, drug addiction, chronic disease or criminal pasts. Gage said the goal is to provide them a platform to launch healthier daily routines as they work to recover and transition out of the housing program.

“They’re figuring out life now, and a lot of that has to do with creating these new day-to-day routines,” Gage said.

The physical component is vital, but Gage cautioned that they must avoid making routines too daunting. For example, she used some money to purchase running shoes, but even with proper footwear, training for a running event is a lot to ask.

“When you’re in poverty, you have to walk everywhere, so it’s kind of hard to get motivated to run six miles a day,” Gage said. “We try to keep things simple and fun.”

Nonetheless, she said residents were grateful and motivated to participate in the 2017 Governor’s Cup. Five residents and five staff members completed a race, and the remaining residents and some board members volunteered by cutting fruit and handing out water at the finish line.

She said women are excited about the 2018 Governor’s Cup and are also already forming three-person teams to tackle the Montana Women’s Triathlon.

“We are really making a big push this year – not just for the Governor’s Cup and Montana Women’s Triathlon – but walking or running in a variety of events,” Gage said. “That experience, that camaraderie, can change your life.”

A primary focus for the I Feel Good initiative in 2018 is to integrate wellness screenings through a partnership with St. Peter’s Hospital Wellness Department. Those screenings will provide full health risk assessments, along with “Know Your Numbers” educational sessions to develop individual and group wellness plans. With that information, YWCA Helena can better accommodate each resident’s specific needs.

“It’s truly transformed the program,” Gage said of the I Feel Good initiative. “I am astounded with how successful it’s been. We’re creating new rituals for celebrating life. … It’s a new schedule they’re pursuing in life and it feels good. It’s simple but it feels good.”