A Volunteer’s Story: “Bringing bright food and challenging ideas”

A Volunteer’s Story: “Bringing bright food and challenging ideas”

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Meet Healthy Living Leader Alan Young

It all started with a meal.

Alan Young didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he signed up six years ago to take LifePath’s “Healthy Eating” leader class, which offers training for leading workshops about how what you eat can affect your health. “I wanted to learn about nutrition,” says Alan. “I had no intention whatsoever of ever doing the classes.”

Not long after, however, Alan bumped into a woman who’d been in the class with him, and together they decided to try out leading at class at the Shelburne Senior Center. On the last day of the workshop series, the class cooked together for each other and the senior center staff. “So we had about 14 there that day,” says Alan. “And then Cathy (the senior center director) approached me: Would I be interested to have the class help me and prepare a meal for the community? She said it might be 25 people. Well, 25 turned into 63. I had nightmares in preparation for that, but we prepared that meal, and that was what started me in here.”

In addition to being a volunteer leader in the Healthy Living program at LifePath, Alan Young is also an artist. “I’m a career artisan. I’ve made and sold wooden spoons in the Pioneer Valley and elsewhere for about 30 years.” With this background, Alan has lead groups at the center in working together to complete various artistic projects. “My thinking is: everybody has art in them, and a lot of them don’t even know it until you create the right situation and the right amount of encouragement.” Currently, Alan is leading a mosaic project. “We’ve had to create a large armature – foam and wire and so forth – and then give each individual an opportunity to create a – well, I call it a vignette – a segment that’s going to go up and get connected on the larger piece.”

All these years later, Alan is still an avid volunteer at the senior center, and he has offered the Healthy Eating workshop numerous times around the local community. “I like the idea of bringing bright food and challenging ideas and expect more of people,” Alan says. “I think of that mango salsa. That is such a setup. ‘Mango salsa?!?’ they all go,” laughs Alan, “and then the next thing you know they’re fighting over the last remnants of it when I bring it in as a treat.”

Recently, Alan co-led a Healthy Eating workshop at the Greenfield Senior Center with Healthy Living Program Coordinator Marcus Chiaretto. “There’s something special about the workshop series that we did. It’s so unifying because everybody has some sort of cultural history that relates to food,” says Marcus. “We can still enjoy the food that we enjoy, but try to make it a little bit healthier and make it so we can improve other aspects of our life through food – it’s a real joy to teach.”

“In a lot of cases it’s not about reinventing the wheel,” Alan adds. “It’s about going back to the way people ate earlier in their lives, particularly in this generation, because people who are in their 70s and 80s now were eating in the 1930s and 1940s as young people, and they ate better – simpler, but better. So a lot of times it’s just reawakening that interest in the food.”

For many who participate in the Healthy Eating workshops, the joy of cooking has been lost. “The missing piece for food for so many people now is community.” After cooking all their lives, says Alan, “they’re bored, so they often eat a convenient thing rather than a healthy thing.”

Marcus agrees. “Cooking for one person – if their spouse passed away or their kids moved out – and just being bored with cooking the same things over the years” can make people feel that food is unexciting. The Healthy Eating workshop “really opens up a whole new world of cooking and food to people that they may not have seen otherwise.”

Alan knows how to make sure his workshops aren’t leaving anyone bored. “There’s something about the eagerness. You know? One of my gauges is: are they looking at the clock as it approaches the stated end of the workshop? Or are they so absorbed that you have to remind them, ‘Well, we may want to start thinking about cleanup now.’”

And after so many years of volunteering, how does Alan stay interested? “For me, it’s about the stories when you gather people around food – you gather them around a project, any kind of common thing. I have just heard wonderful family stories because people relax and trust you over time and then the conversations go where they go.”

In addition to leading Healthy Eating workshops, Alan is also trained to lead “Tai Chi for Healthy Aging” through LifePath, and he offers knitting and art classes at the senior center. “When I look at the amount of hours I spend doing this, sometimes I’m surprised. I just get more out of it than I put into it. I always leave feeling energized and interested and wanting to come up with the next thing that’s gonna keep people involved.”