The ‘Chunch’ Lady Gina Albini
If you shop for groceries in Bozeman, you have probably seen Gina Albini in action. She is the volunteer head of the free student lunch ministry sponsored by Resurrection Catholic Parish in Bozeman. The home-style meal is served at midday on Thursdays during most weeks of the school year. A majority of the average two hundred or so who show up are MSU students, anxious for a hot meal during the busy week. There is no charge, and all are welcome.
Over the years, the students came to shorten the church lunch to “Chunch,” and the name is now known by all who help with preparations and those who enjoy the food and conversation in a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere.
You might be at a local grocery store when you notice a pleasant looking lady in the aisle with a cart loaded with hams. You go over to the meat counter and find out that the hams are a real bargain. On another day, this same shopper will be seen with a cart full of the canned goods to be stored for later use. She won’t miss that special, which might be beans, corn or tomatoes. Smith’s case sale? She’s there—getting the best deals. Costco’s excess demo foods—this volunteer will be there to take them home to one of her two large freezers. The local Food Bank also provides items that it can’t distribute but has on hand, like large cans of vegetables, and breads which are baked locally.
Gina is mother to three grown kids, seven grandchildren and ten great grandchildren. She has lived in Bozeman since 1993 and knows the community well: a bona fide local. This self-giving lady knows where to find specials and food bargains, and anyone willing to give good food or money for Chunch. She has headed up this lunch ministry since 1996. Her memories include when a big turnout would be fifty students and the time it exceeded five hundred. What pleases her is to receive letters of thanks and notes from students and parents who greatly appreciate her efforts. A warm, made-from-scratch meal and friendly, welcoming atmosphere are her offerings.
The money for this ministry is all donated, some from Parish and community members, some from the students and their parents. This good steward is very careful about how the donated money is spent and all purchases are carefully made. She scans the weekly store ads and buys year round. The local stores know her well and are very supportive.
Gina is the spark which provides the fire when it comes to cooking these meals. “Look at these organic carrots!” she exclaims as I enter the parish kitchen. A local farmer just dropped them off, along with a big sack of potatoes.
The main dishes have been prepared many times, but each varies with what has been purchased or donated at the time. Gina doesn’t need a written recipe, but I might catch her looking at a few notes from the past. “Mac and cheese this week,” she announces as assistants enter the kitchen. I count the extra cheeses, four or so, as each is grated. The ingredients and spices vary with availability. I watch her face as she gives a test taste to this week’s offering. “Close, but needs a bit more chili powder,” as others gather around the almost finished dish to offer an opinion.
The volunteers Gina supervises start the preparations on Wednesday mornings. First to arrive will be Gina, as she backs her vehicle near the Parish facility to unload this week’s food for the lunch. The cooking crew is ready to prepare the main dish. Three large roasters are carefully filled with the chili, ham and potatoes or perhaps beef stew for the week’s meal. The pans are stored in refrigerators overnight, and on Thursday morning Gina and more volunteers show up to place the pans in the heating units, so everything is hot and ready for the midday meal. No shortcuts here; this is for her beloved students and those who like a nourishing hot lunch. Other contributors and volunteers will come by to drop off salads, desserts and fresh garden vegetables.
A group of servers show up to greet the students and serve the meal. Over the years, many volunteers have stayed with their favorite station of service. The ice cream and dessert table is a popular station. The entire operation is overseen, directed and supervised by this caring lady. Gina is always there, whether to guide the cooks and servers, or sometimes just to lend a listening ear to a student in need of support.
After 1:30, more volunteers show up to help with clean up. Table decorations have a theme each week and are provided by another long-time volunteer who has made this ministry so special, Martha Hamilton. Martha supervises the facility set up, take down and clean-up helpers. She is certainly another local who makes a difference and deserves her own recognition.
Gina is there to greet and serve the students she loves. To see her bring a special gluten-free vegetarian offering to someone who cannot otherwise enjoy the main dish, or perhaps an extra dessert to go for a student in a hurry, is to experience selfless giving at its best.
Gina believes that the Christian Gospel is best proclaimed by service to others. When asked why she does this labor-intensive ministry, her reply is simple. Waiving her hand over the lunch room now filled with happy, hungry students and community members, Gina says, “May we see Christ in each and every one of them, and they in us.”
Next week, it will all start again. For Gina, it starts right away. There are those weekly specials to purchase or she will be checking the freezers to see what is on hand.