Paying back kindness received
By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer
Kay O’Connor is a woman who others describe as caring, dedicated, hard-working, organized, and an advocate for those who are struggling and in desperate situations. She is a woman with a passion to help anyone and everyone in need.
O’Connor has volunteered for the McKenzie County Food Pantry since August of 2012 (pre-oil boom), and she has worked part-time at Beard Construction Inc. for the last nine years. In her adult life, she has never not had a job.
“Kay is an extremely hard worker,” stated Marcia Hellandsaas, McKenzie County Food Pantry director and a good friend of O’Connor. “She has a burning passion to help anyone in need. She works almost daily at the pantry. Helping those in need has become a huge task in our community. Kay knows and understands that and thrives to serve our community each day and do all she can to help those who struggle for one reason or another.”
And it is because of these qualities and so many more that O’Connor has been named this year’s McKenzie County Farmer “Heart of Gold” recipient.
O’Connor came to Watford City from Esmond in 1984 with her husband, John, and three elementary-aged children. John had gotten a job at Watford City High School teaching science.
“We were welcomed with open arms when we came here in 1984,” remembers O’Connor. “Back then, we were living off a teacher’s salary, which wasn’t very much, and raising three young children. I remember that the community was always hosting benefits, and at that time, we really didn’t have money to donate and I wasn’t the type of person to go to a benefit to get a free meal and not give anything. So we just stayed home.”
But it has come full circle since the O’Connors moved to Watford City in 1984, and now that their children are grown and have moved on with their own lives, O’Connor and her husband have found themselves in a place to finally be able to give back. And that is just what O’Connor wanted to do for a community she felt welcomed her and her family with open arms and gave so much to them.
“It’s a reward knowing that I am helping other people now,” said O’Connor. “I’m capable of doing it. I have the time, and I just want to give back, especially to those that really need the help. A lot of what I do revolves around God. That’s my purpose in life. It’s like a ‘heart of gold’ is really having a ‘heart of God.’ Because you’re doing service that’s an extension of Him. You have to have a heart of God to be where you need to be when the timing is right.”
“Kay has a deep faith in God and that faith ignites a light in her every day,” Hellandsaas said. “She brings a wonderfully bright and enthusiastic outlook to each day. The work that Kay does is a job. It takes an extremely dedicated, responsible, and hard-working person to complete all the tasks she does. She is one of a kind.”
Hellandsaas often wonders how many lives O’Connor is saving. The impact she has is huge.
“She could tell many stories of struggles she has heard and of the impact her helping hand has had,” states Hellandsaas. “Kay reaches out to the young and the elderly, helping so many people. It’s all to provide hope, inspiration, and to make a difference each and every day. Kay understands the importance of taking care of those who struggle in this community.”
O’Connor’s work with the Food Pantry is incredibly daunting and tiresome. But to O’Connor, it’s worth every minute to be able to help the people that need it. Since O’Connor began her volunteer work with the Food Pantry in 2012, she has quickly transitioned from volunteering a couple of hours a week to weeks where she’s volunteered more than 60 hours.
“Kay now handles almost all the tasks when it comes time to distribute food,” says Hellandsaas. “She finds volunteers, sets up distribution sites, packs boxes of food, supervises the unloading of the delivery truck, shops at our local grocery stores, figures out holiday giveaway menus, orders food from the Great Plains Food Bank, and more I’m sure!”
And every morning, O’Connor makes a trip to Cash Wise to pick up bakery items and boxes. Sometimes she makes several trips a day to Cash Wise just to pick up whatever items are available for donation so they don’t go to waste, and instead can go to a family or individual who needs the food. She goes so much that she jokes she often feels like another employee there.
“Kay has great friends at Cash Wise, where she picks up food several days a week,” stated Hellandsaas. “Staff greet her with open arms.”
For the many individuals and families that do not know where their next meal is coming from and are struggling financially for a number of reasons, O’Connor has been key to providing them with food so that they have one less worry. Not only is she successfully completing her volunteer duties, she oftentimes goes above and beyond for people in need.
“Kay’s compassionate heart leads her to helping people in many ways,” says Barb Becker, local pastor and a friend of O’Connor. “She has taken people into her own home when they needed a temporary place to stay and there were no other options. She gives of her own money when necessary to meet a need.”
“She works tirelessly at the community Food Pantry at First Lutheran Church and for the Cash Wise food giveaway at the First Presbyterian Church, putting in many hours,” adds Becker. “She is a willing volunteer for whatever situation arises. Many times she volunteers to meet needs in our community with no thought of the cost to herself. Never are the concerns of others far from her thoughts. Her heart of compassion and love for others is evident in all she does.”
Of course, O’Connor won’t take all the credit for the work she does with the Food Pantry. She credits her amazing group of volunteers and a generous community.
“If it weren’t for the great volunteers we have, I couldn’t do what I do,” said O’Connor. “I feel like our volunteer family at the Food Pantry, which is many, plays a big part in serving the community, and they help me with what all needs to be done. There’s a lot of compassion out there. If you could just see the people donating and wanting to help. It’s truly amazing. It’s the volunteers and the community that makes all of this possible.”
When O’Connor goes home at night, even though she’s physically done working and volunteering her time, the work never leaves her mind. She is always thinking of ways she can make things better, more efficient, more effective, and more organized.
“I have to purposefully sit down in front of the TV at night to spend some time with my husband,” says O’Connor. “But when I do that, I can still fill out my Food Pantry paperwork while I’m with John. The Food Pantry is my baby and I am always trying to look at something and make it better. So my mind is constantly turning. I even go to bed at night and wake up going, ‘Oh that’s how I can do it!’ There is always something for me to do and think about.”
Aside from wanting to help others with putting food on their plates, O’Connor does what she does because she wants people to feel welcome and cared about.
“If people can at least find someone they can relate to, they’ll talk,” says O’Connor. “And it’s not that I can relate, but I understand where they’re coming from. And these people are making the effort to come, so I want to help them, talk to them, make them feel welcome and cared for. You’ve got families that just can’t make it and can you imagine how that would feel.”
As O’Connor continues on with her passion to help people, she’ll continue to encourage others and be an example of a person with a true ‘heart of gold.’
“We believe that Kay is definitely worthy of this award,” stated Becker, Rita Hovet, and Vicki Bauer, all women that think highly of O’Connor. “She has been quietly involved in assisting our community for years. She truly meets the definition of a leader - one who sees a need and fills that need. She genuinely cares about others.”
Kay O’Connor is truly a woman who is more than deserving of this year’s “Heart of Gold” title. She embodies the characteristics of a person with a true ‘Heart of Gold!’