Connecting with Darren: Finding Good in a Pandemic

Darren Lidstrom

By Ashley Wood

“One of the pleasant surprises in life is meeting people.”

This month, our temporary Café Food Programs Coordinator, Darren Lidstrom, is leaving the Haven to return to his job as sous chef at King Arthur Flour. Our paths have not physically crossed much, as I have been working remotely for the majority of his time in the role, so when we sat down to discuss his experience at the Haven, I thought we’d mostly talk about how busy his days were, what it’s like to have 25 years of experience in the restaurant industry but no professional kitchen, and the challenges of completely adapting a food program. And we did… but we also dived deeper into people, values, adversity, respect, and compassion through the lenses of Covid-19 and shared experience.

Darren taking on the role of Café Food Programs Coordinator, a newly-created position in response to Covid-19, was lucky for us and lucky for him. When Covid-19 started to slow down business for many in the Upper Valley, King Arthur Flour found their flour sales booming, but little foot traffic to their café to sustain restaurant staff. At the same time, the Upper Valley Haven was facing the challenge of how to adapt our food services, including the Food Shelf and meals that had been served to the public in the Caruso Café each weekday, as well as a new need to provide food for homeless individuals and families finding shelter in local motels through vouchers provided by the state of Vermont. The volume of need was too great for current staff, existing systems, and available volunteers, so the Haven began advertising for a part-time position to help with food operations.

King Arthur Flour and the Haven partner together regularly. But when King Arthur Flour management learned of the Haven’s need, they took that partnership a step further, deciding to redeploy one of their employees in support of the Haven, while maximizing continued employment for their staff and benefiting the greater community. Darren learned about the coordinator opportunity and visited the Haven to find out more information for King Arthur employees. At the time, he knew KAF donated bread and other goods to the Haven and had a general sense of what the Haven did within the community. After hearing more about the situation and the scope of the Haven’s work, Darren started to think this opportunity might be right for him. He applied for the position and interviewed. After the interview, he was walking through the parking lot in front of the Haven with Leslie Rimmer, Director of Organizational Development and the hiring manager for this position, when someone who had just picked up food was driving past them on their way out of the parking lot. They rolled down their window and expressed sincere appreciation for all that the Haven had provided. That moment showed him what kind of impact could be made on people’s lives through this work and he knew it was something he should go for if offered the job.

“One of the pleasant surprises in life is meeting people.”

As you know by now, Darren got the job. He began as the job description had suggested, with part-time hours, but as Covid-19 began to grow in size and scope (from preparing and coordinating 60-90 meals a week to up to 500 at one point), so did his hours and the ways that he could be of service. Coming to the position with many years of professional restaurant experience and being a “systems guy,” Darren set out to streamline processes and increase efficiencies in a unique and ever-changing situation with a volunteer network and without a professional kitchen. And of those volunteers, many were brand new, as the Haven had requested that any older or at-risk volunteers hit “pause” on their service due to the pandemic. Darren helped with preparing and organizing daily takeout boxes on campus (in place of breakfast and lunch served in the Caruso Café) and meals to be delivered to people in local motels, and he helped coordinate the efforts of our mobile food shelf for the motels. By all accounts, it could have been a 50-hour per week job at its height. It was mass production of food in an environment not made for that volume (one walk-in refrigerator and freezer, a residential kitchen) and there were limitations to work within—most people receiving prepared meals who were temporarily housed in motels would have mini fridges and microwaves as their primary means of food storage and cooking.

If you have a food service or hospitality professional in your life, it won’t surprise you that Darren called any of these challenges “speed bumps.” He didn’t stop moving some days with the rate at which things were changing and it was entirely different work than he was used to despite the theme of food. The coordinator’s role required that he spend a lot of time inside the Byrne Community Building (the central building on the Haven’s campus) while much of the Haven’s operations moved outside for health and safety reasons. Among the bustle inside and when he could step outside, he started noticing the scope of what the Haven does and the people who make it work. As he says, the highlight of the experience was “the people, 100%.” Things were running at full speed with relatively few full-time employees and many who were filling multi-faceted roles. Then there was the new influx of volunteers, who he was impressed were putting a foot forward to do good and help out. It was a job, but it also became an opportunity for him to be rooted within the community.

“One of the pleasant surprises in life is meeting people.”

Darren noted that he started to realize how many areas in which the Haven was providing support for people—food, housing, a children’s program, transportation, personal items, education, etc. And for how long we’d been doing it—“it’s been decades in the making.” And that there were all sorts of reasons that people were coming to the Haven, and the reach of who we help is vast, because it’s anyone, anyone can find a hand up at the Haven. He witnessed multiple arms of the organization coming together to help a single person in many ways.

Little did I know when I began the interview that at the same time Darren was seeing this play out around him and helping to make it so, he was feeling the impact of people supporting him too. As he says, he had been “saved twice” as of late—the job at the Haven kept him employed during Covid-19 and King Arthur Flour had kept him employed and moving forward when he became a widower two years ago.

We talked about the pandemic, and how not all of us have lost a spouse, but we are all living this life-changing event. There are a lot of unknowns, which is scary. But you have to be willing to adapt, to varying degrees of adversity. And you control what you can control. You take a step forward. “Is it a good one? Awesome. Is it a bad one? Well, okay, take a step back.” Oh, and breathe. Don’t forget to take a breath. He remembers John Tunnicliffe at King Arthur, a tall guy, putting his hands on Darren’s shoulders on a frustrating day and simply reminding him to “breathe.” There is a lot of power in how we approach life and in knowing that we’re not alone. We can only each make so much change, but we’re all a little different and can help each other out. It’s going to take a lot of us to harness respect, understanding, and compassion to make a difference.

“One of the pleasant surprises in life is meeting people.”

As Darren speaks of the approach to his role at the Haven and moving forward through the loss of a loved one, of the importance of people and connection and respect, I can’t help but notice the parallels between his insight and the people we meet daily at the Haven facing their own adversity. And the light Covid-19 is shining on how we each show up for ourselves and others. Do we all wish there was something other than a worldwide pandemic to show us that light? I think most would answer in the affirmative on that question. But through that shared experience and this conversation, we are also shown that we must all overcome unexpected obstacles, many out of our control. That we can continue, and our steps, however small, do add up. That if we look at things as an opportunity with compassion and connection as our guides, maybe we’ll find that we have been given a lot, even in a pandemic.

Thanks for spending your past few months with us at the Haven, Darren. It was a pleasant surprise to meet you.

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