After spending years in the kitchen feeding youth in Vale, Debbie Mohammed is looking to slow down a little and enjoy retirement soon. (Submitted photo)

VALE – For the last eight years, Vale children have enjoyed summers swimming at the local pool, riding bikes and playing baseball. They also have enjoyed a daily lunch, thanks to Debbie Mohammed.

Mohammed was recently honored for her work by the Vale Chamber of Commerce as volunteer of the year.

The award, for Mohammed, is not as great as the memories made as hungry children turn into adults and parents.

“I am now seeing children of kids I used to feed years ago,” Mohammed said. “I am proud of the fact we will feed every child that shows up.”

The journey has not been without a few worries and turns in the road for Mohammed.

Born in Missouri and growing up in Illinois, Mohammed met her husband Chris in the Marine Corps, where she served in the military police. After leaving the Marines, she stayed at home with three children while he went to work for the Bureau of Land Management.

As Chris progressed upward, they moved to Vale 15 years ago.

“We knew it was in eastern Oregon and that was about it,” Mohammed said.

While raising children, she found time to volunteer at Harvest House, a non-profit in Ontario helping the homeless. A summer lunch program in Ontario sponsored by Harvest House triggered the idea for Vale.

 “We started the program in Vale, piggy backing off the Ontario program as we were too small for our own,” she explained.

Two years ago, it appeared the program was done. After Harvest House closed, it seemed the Vale meals would no longer be available. Mohammed and others convinced the Boys & Girls Club of Western Treasure Valley in Ontario to step up and provide the meals.

“Last year was the first year I did not have to cook the meals,” said Mohammed. “I just served what they sent us. This summer, I am going back to cooking the meals and serving them. All the cooking was just too much for the Boys & Girls Club.”

Giving to others goes back quite a way for Mohammed. 

“I started serving at the Harvest House when my husband was a pastor and worked at Harvest House,” she said. “I then started the cooking and continued it there until it closed.”

Now, either in the Assembly of God church parking lot or Wadleigh Park, Mohammed and a group of volunteers serves lunches to about 75 children each day.

Being a grandmother, Mohammed said life has taken a turn she never imagined.

“At this age, I thought I would be running after my own grandkids by now,” she said. “The first set of kids I started to feed are now in their 20s and have kids of their own they are bringing to the lunch. That in itself is rewarding.”

Mohammed said the program helps out those usually not needing a hand up.

“Most of the kids we see come from one-income families that just need a little help during the summer trying to make a dollar stretch,” she explained. 

Heading into this summer, Mohammed is ready to hit the pots and pans again. But, looking ahead, she sees herself giving up the duties soon.

 “My husband is retired and goes fishing,” she said. “I have no interest in fishing, but I would like to find a replacement and do some things with him here in the next few years.”

Mohammed said the program relies on children showing up each day as reimbursement a government program is based on attendance.

“We will even feed the parents that want to help out,” she said. “It is a great way to have a picnic with your child.”

In eight years of watching children walk through the line before sitting down to eat a healthy meal, one little girl stands out to Mohammed.

“At the end of the summer, this little girl gave me a note,” she recalls. “The note said thank you for making my lunch this summer and all you do. It also said thank you for treating me like family. That made my whole summer.”

The Mohammeds don’t plan on becoming snowbirds or leaving the area with retirement.

“We love it here and plan on staying,” she said.