In the Footsteps of Milly
The old saying that “charity begins at home” is a truism Mary Camilla “Milly” Bloomquist lived by. Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, during the Great Depression, Milly credited her parents for providing her with good examples of compassion and charity—they said “feeding people is a family tradition.” By the time Milly and her husband, Rev. Earl (Bud) Bloomquist, made Keuka Park their family’s home in 1958, Milly had over ten years of experience in practical and public nursing. While working for public health in Yates County, she became aware of local families’ exceptional need for food, fuel, and clothing. Social services were lacking at that time, so Milly would gather resources herself, calling on church groups and friends for donations. Later, as a Penn Yan school nurse and teacher, she discovered children were coming to school hungry. She wasted no time enlisting community assistance, and started a free school breakfast program in 1966. When a need arose for children’s clothes and toys during the holidays, Milly began the Christmas for the Needy program in 1986. She advised the Food for the Needy Program (started by two local women in 1984), and eventually took it over, providing monthly boxes of food for families.
A program now in its twelfth year was born from a suggestion by Milly’s daughter, Becky Holder. A teacher at the time, Becky noticed that children could hardly wait for the school kitchen to open on Monday mornings. As a result, the Weekend Backpack Program, funded by the Daisy Marquis Jones Foundation, was fledged in 2007, starting with just twenty-seven backpacks full of food kids could fix for themselves. The program now sends home 500 backpacks every weekend, totaling 15,879 bags a year.
Milly was quick to acknowledge the volunteers who undertook her heart’s work, and in 2008 they returned that acknowledgement by establishing Milly’s Pantry, Inc. (millyspantry.org) as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization. Later that year, a generous grant from the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund allowed Milly’s Pantry to purchase the building at 19-23 Main Street in Penn Yan that now houses a revenue-generating social enterprise known as the Pinwheel Market. Spending five dollars at the market feeds one child in the community for a weekend. Shoppers can enjoy hot drinks, baked goods, and lunch while browsing through crafts and food items offered on consignment by local artisans.
In October of 2011, President Barack Obama presented Milly with a Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the highest awards a civilian can receive. Susan Wolff, current board president for Milly’s Pantry, calls Milly “Penn Yan’s guardian angel.” Milly was ninety-four when she died on December 11, 2014, but her passion for feeding people lives on in new and far-reaching ways.
The Tradition Continues
Ashley Owens says that she and fellow Penn Yan Academy junior Natalie McFarland were “up for the challenge” when their Future Business Leaders of America teacher, Cathy Fritz, asked them to take on a project. George Schaeffer (Milly’s Pantry president at the time) presented them with the goal of feeding 500 children at five sites across Yates County during the summer of 2016. Ashley and Natalie successfully presented their business plan for the Summer Food Program to Milly’s board of directors, accounting for every last detail. They hired fellow high schoolers to carry out the work. Denise Shay, executive assistant to the board, acts as program director.
Their days began at 7:45 a.m. at the Penn Yan Elementary School. Ashley and Natalie received practical tips about feeding a crowd from the school’s cafeteria supervisor—i.e. making masses of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches using squirt bottles was fast. Lunches were made, packed, sorted into coolers, and dispatched out to libraries, schools, and outdoor recreation sites. The girls planned so well that there were funds left over to be used the following year.
Ashley recruited twenty-one-year-old Chey Bradley, a former FBLA member, to manage the program in 2018. Chey, a business major with supervisory experience, formed a balanced team with her sister, sixteen-year-old Kenna, who had restaurant experience. Chey described the transition as smooth, although challenging, as the entire crew—Kenna’s classmates—was new. Kenna took over as program manager the following year. As word about the program spread, the number of sites has now climbed to eleven and the per-day meal count is 550.
Both sets of managers demonstrated creativity in their approaches. Ashley and Natalie developed algorithms to streamline the stacks of paperwork required by the funders. They offered their team the opportunity to pick local blueberries to include in the lunches; it turned out the kids loved them so much that the extra lunch bags would come back missing the fruit!
When Chey took over, she posted flowcharts on the kitchen walls to increase efficiency. A couple of weeks into the season, she was informed that kids were coming to a ten o’clock program hungry. In true “Milly’s fashion,” she tapped into Milly’s Pantry Supplemental Food Program and added the delivery of milk, cereal, and fruit for that site.
The young women described their involvement with the program as a rare and unique opportunity that provided them with leadership training and team-building skills, and expressed gratitude toward the organization for entrusting them with this responsibility.
“Milly’s Pantry has a great reputation,” Kenna says. “We’re actually here to help and learn, and to carry out that good reputation.” The sisters will continue managing the program again this summer because, as Chey, says, “How can you say no to feeding kids?”