In Ballantine, ‘We’re the church that feeds the children’

BALLANTINE — It was a jar of pickles that convinced Doug Oltrogge that something needed to be done.

Late last July, grant funding for a summer-lunch program served at the Ballantine Congregational United Church of Christ ran out three weeks before the start of the new school year.

Oltrogee and his wife, Rita, were volunteering at the program, and as Rita said, “We had kids that last day who asked us, ‘We’ve got three weeks. What are we going to eat?’”

So the Oltrogges started serving lunch themselves, to tide the kids over until school started. And one day, as he was preparing lunch, Doug Oltrogge found an empty jar of pickles, which he knew he hadn’t left out, and soon after that he found a half-eaten pack of stale doughnuts.

After a few more similar incidents, it became clear that somebody, most likely kids from the neighborhood, were somehow breaking into the church. They weren’t stealing anything else and they weren’t doing any damage. They were just taking food.

It was the pickle jar that stuck in Oltrogge’s mind.

“It was pretty obvious these kids were hungry,” he said. “They broke into a church to eat pickles.”

He and his wife decided to do something about it, at first thinking maybe they’d cook and serve a meal at the church every Wednesday evening. But they quickly realized that wasn’t enough, either, and so they began serving supper five nights a week, every Monday through Friday.

About 10 days ago, they served their 5,000th plate of food. They’ve had lots of help, from church members and other residents of Ballantine, and they receive regular food shipments from the Billings Food Bank and bread from the Salvation Army in Billings.

Other help came from the Catholic church in Ballantine, churches in nearby Huntley and Worden, the Project Merc grocery store in Worden, Huntley Project Schools and Tiger Town, a gas station, motel and laundromat in Ballantine.

“It’s just kind of amazing to me how everyone stepped up to help when we needed it,” Rita Oltrogge said.

The Oltrogges spend four to five hours a day volunteering at the church, serving peanut butter sandwiches and other snacks to kids who get off the school bus in front of the church and then serving supper to all comers between 5 and 6:30 p.m. in the church basement.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Rita and Doug Oltrogge started the five-day-a-week meal program in the Ballantine Congregational United Church of Christ.

They’ll serve somewhat more than 30 people on an average night. During their busiest month ever, they prepared 830 plates of food.

The new minister at the church, the Rev. John Dyce, started just three weeks ago. A native of Billings who most recently served a church in Buffalo, Wyo., Dyce first heard of the Ballantine church during a Congregationalist conference last year.

The Rev. Jim Smith, then the pastor in Ballantine, told him, “We’re becoming known as the church that feeds the children.” Dyce said his thought was, “Wow, I want to be part of that, somehow.”

He soon got the chance, when Smith took a new position and Dyce applied to replace him. Dyce was there for supper Monday evening, enjoying a meal of chicken Alfredo, green beans and garlic bread—as well as salads, peaches and desserts.

“Every meal is cooked,” Doug Oltrogge said. “We don’t put it on paper plates. We put it on china.”

He does most of the cooking, and he and Rita don’t seem to care if the children eat their dessert first, or how much they eat, for that matter.

“It’s not a soup kitchen,” Doug Oltrogge said. “I’m going to feed them what kids should eat. … If it comes to us plentifully, we’re going to give it out plentifully.”


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Calvin Miller, 12, found the cupcake finger-licking good.

Oltrogge, 60, grew up in Ballantine and was baptized in the Congregational church when he was 5. He is able to spend so much time volunteering because he took an involuntary retirement three years years ago when his Chron’s disease made it impossible to hold down a full-time job.

He said he’s happy to have the time to volunteer, and he doesn’t want to take credit for getting the program going.

“There wasn’t a lot of forethought,” he said. “It just kind of happened.” As for his role, he added, “I’m a spoon, I’m a spatula, I’m a kettle, I’m a frying pan.”

Now, in addition to being the church that feeds children, it is also something of a community center. Lots of kids who live in a trailer court across the street from the church head for the church basement after the school bus drops them off, then hang out until their parents arrive to join them for supper.

“For some people it’s a form of socialization,” Doug Oltrogge said. “The mainstay of socialization in most of these small towns is the bar, but even the bars are going away.”

“It isn’t really about the food,” Rita Oltrogge said. “It’s about the people.”

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