The faces and stories of people who live and work at Presbyterian Homes & Services (PHS).
No senior should go hungry in Minnesota and solving the problem of food insecurity in our state is truly my passion. Working for Optage Meals, I get to combine my family’s history and passion for food as well as my interests in government and helping vulnerable populations.
—Avery Kearney, provider relations representative
I grew up in Stillwater, Minn., with my mom, dad and three brothers. I come from a long line of talented and passionate cooks. I was always told the Kearneys show love through their cooking. My constant memory is going to my grandparents’ houses on weekends for super nice meals. I have four amazing grandparents that I got to be around all the time as a kid.
A little about my family history … my great-great grandma was a professional cook for the king of Prussia, an old German state that doesn't exist anymore, but fascinating, nonetheless. My great-grandma was a professional cook, also; she came to America and cooked for the family that owned Bremer Bank and Hamm’s Brewing Company. Later her son (who is my grandpa) became a cook in the Navy.
A few years ago, my Grandpa Patrick Kearney passed away. He was the head chef and mastermind behind most meals we ate. He was the glue to my family, and I learned so much about life from him.
He and others taught me to value sitting down with people you love and sharing a meal. Cooking is definitely a hobby of mine. It could be as simple as eating Ramen noodles, but it’s all about family. Food brings us together — I think of it like a universal language.
A first taste
I experienced this on a whole new level in high school when I became a culinary server at Boutwells Landing. Now you’d think, as a server, I’m there just to serve people food, right? But I learned that each time you serve someone, you have a conversation.
And that’s what I think is so special about being a server: you truly get to know the residents. So, every single night I’d be serving the same residents sitting in the same spots and continuing our conversation from the night before. It’s like having a bunch of friends, really!
But there’s another side to this: they become like family. So, it’s sad when residents pass away. There’s Larry, for instance … he always sits at this table … and I might show up to work the next day and Larry’s not there. So over time, I experienced the depth and impact of those relationships.
Out of his simple, yet profound experience as a server, Avery pursued a career with PHS upon graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in political science.
I continued as an on-call server throughout college and got the opportunity to be a receptionist. Meanwhile, I pursued my interests in government and law in studies at the university.
That’s when things started to click. I was witnessing people work every day at this community — and not just in the server role, but in all kinds of careers. They formed relationships with me, and I was inspired by a lot of administrative staff. I thought, I could see myself doing that.
This exposure also gave me an awareness of the baby boomer generation starting to need more and more care. I recognized the huge need for workers and the inevitable need for state government to step in to help prepare Minnesota for what our new landscape will look like.
This is something I want to be a part of — the government solution. For example, in the next five years Minnesota will have 50,000 more residents over the age of 80.
After graduating I wanted to find administrative work in healthcare that ideally had ties to government relations. Naturally I went onto the Presbyterian Homes website
and started applying for jobs.
I applied for a variety of open positions. Then Marie Gaspardo from Optage Meals
followed up with me.
I recall Marie saying, “Hey, looking at your experience, I see you’ve been a server at Boutwells Landing. What do you think about being an intake assistant with us?”
I thought, That’s crazy because that really interests me!
Purpose to nourish
Today as an Optage Meals provider relations representative, Avery expands outreach to the broader community, sharing love with thousands in need through shared meals. Optage, our home and community services division, offers support to live well with meals, home care and hospice. Learn more at Optage.org
I started at Optage Meals in 2019 and fell in love with the work. We help feed people who may otherwise not be fed, serving about 3,000 meals daily
. We get to connect with people who may not hear anyone's voice all week until they call us with a meal order, and we have a conversation.
Our clients need a certain level of care but want to stay in their homes. Home delivered meals
is one of the many services those with a home- and community-based services waiver can select.
It is just really important, meaningful work. I relate it to stories in the media about children going hungry, and they only have one meal a day because they go to school, right? So, they get that school lunch. An older person might not even have that school lunch. It’s kind of a forgotten population and one of the growing populations that visit food shelves.
So if I can use the things I’ve been blessed with — whether it’s my family background or communication skills to break things down to ensure understanding and make people feel comfortable — then I feel I’ve helped a vulnerable population. It’s all about compassion and serving people who may be less fortunate.
I recall one time in the early days of the pandemic, when our meals operation was shifting. Delivery methods had to change, and we had to reduce our menu. We received an email from a nonverbal person, asking basically, “Hey, do you have any food?”
We answered, “Yes, we do!”
Then we took him through our standard process of questions to ensure eligibility:
- Are you on a Medicaid waiver?
- Are you over 60?
- Which county do you live in, etc.?
So, he didn’t qualify for anything. But we have a mission benevolence fund, a pool of money set aside for people exactly like him.
I replied something to the effect of: “Yeah, come on over to our headquarters here, and I’ll give you seven meals a week or 14 meals every other week. We’ll cover it.”
So, being nonverbal, he would come up, knock on the door and I’d hand him a bag of food. He’d give me a thumbs up and walk away. And then went on for maybe a month or two. Once a week he’d come, give me a thumbs up. It’s a beautiful metaphor: food, a universal language.
We want to serve as many people as we can, feed as many mouths as we possibly can — just like this man.
In my new role as a provider relations representative, I am tasked with growing our operation: finding social workers who have clients in need, going to care communities to present our services and working with leaders in aging to pass legislation to make food more accessible for our seniors.
No senior should go hungry in Minnesota and solving the problem of food insecurity in our state is truly my passion. Working for Optage Meals
, I get to combine my family’s history and passion for food as well as my interests in government and helping vulnerable populations.
Interested in a PHS career? Avery’s advice
The coolest thing is you’re encouraged to grow from within. I hear stories like my own every day from different staff members. Truly, they want you to succeed, and they will help you get to the next level.
And as a faith-based ministry, it’s also family based: we’re all so close and have a personal connection with each other. We care about each other’s well-being and families. It’s just a very understanding and compassionate place to work.
Like Avery, you could also help enrich the lives of older adults, working at Optage or a PHS community near you. We always have a wide range of positions open in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, for a variety of careers. Whether you’re starting out, at mid-career level or looking for a post-retirement career, we encourage you to apply to join our team at preshomes.org/careers and follow our blog.