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Spring 2009

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A Calling, Not a Job

When it comes to making a difference in the lives of Montanans, Phyllis Dennee has quietly, but powerfully, been doing just that for over 30 years. Dennee, a nutrition education specialist housed in the Department of Health and Human Development, actively worked with county extension agents and nutrition assistants across Montana to touch the lives of thousands with two nutrition-based programs--the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and Food Stamp Nutrition Education (FSNE).

Photo of Phyllis Dennee at the EHHD Recognition Reception.Originally from a farm community in Minnesota, Phyllis began college life at St. Cloud State University thinking she wanted to be an accountant. However, her advisor told her that all she would ever be was a bookkeeper and suggested she try something else. Something else turned out to be home economics.

Phyllis Dennee celebrated 31 years
at MSU before retiring last spring.

“That advice changed my life.  I loved everything about home economics— the science and the management.  It felt professional,” Dennee said. “Once I started student teaching, I was hooked. Two junior high home economics teaching positions in Wisconsin and Minnesota cemented the fact that teaching was what I loved.”

In 1975, when husband Bob was offered a job with the Forest Service, they moved to Libby, Montana.  After a short time in northwestern Montana, they moved to Bozeman where Dennee met Professor Margaret Briggs in the home economics department at Montana State University.

“Everything fell into place.  Margaret Briggs encouraged me to enter the graduate program with a teaching assistantship. I learned how much I loved teaching education at the college level,” said Dennee.

After receiving a Master’s in Home Economics Education in 1982, Dennee became a full-time tenure track faculty member teaching home economics education. Many current family and consumer science teachers around the state are her former students.

Jennifer Peabody, a family and consumer sciences teacher at Carter County High School in Ekalaka, Montana, was one of Dennee’s students in the early 1980s.

“Phyllis was a role model for us.  In her classes, the room was quiet and you wanted to listen.  She always had something important to say,” Peabody said.
Peabody followed in Dennee’s footsteps, teaching in Ekalaka for the past 21 years.

“I have a lot of respect for Phyllis.  She inspired me to become a teacher,” said Peabody.

Peabody says Dennee’s “legend lives on” because in the past several years, some of her students have been inspired to become teachers, too. 

“She’s inspiring a second generation of teachers through me,” Peabody proudly stated.

Dennee left MSU for two years to teach at Bozeman Junior High School, but in 1988, she was drawn back by a position with MSU Extension as a nutrition education specialist. Her new position would impact the lives of even more Montanans since she would now direct the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), which would serve thousands of Montanans. Then in 1997, Dennee wrote a grant proposal for a similar EFNEP program and took on additional responsibilities with the Food Stamp Nutrition and Education (FSNE) program (recently renamed SNAP and funded by federal funds through the state Food Stamp office.)

Dennee says with the implementation of the Food Stamp Nutrition Education program in 17 counties in Montana came a shift in ideology.

 

“Montana went from just handing out food stamps to educating people on nutrition.  Many people seeking food stamps are in a crisis situation and can’t manage their income,” said Dennee.  “Our program provides practical information and education to FSNE families and individuals on a limited budget, encouraging them to choose healthier foods.”

Now in 20 counties and on five reservations in Montana, the Food Stamp Nutrition Education program in 2007 reached out to over 3000 adults, who completed a series of lessons or attended sessions on improving food skills.

Success stories powerfully reflect the impact the program has made on the lives of participants.  One client commented that for the first time, she used a menu sheet and grocery ads to plan meals and her son “is so happy to have such good food and meals.”  She quit going to McDonalds.

A young mother of two small children reported, “Since taking the lessons, I can now make my food stamps last through the month.  Now I cook more meals and buy less boxed meals.  I feel that I am making healthy choices for myself and especially for my children.”

“She’s inspiring
a second generation
of teachers
....”

In addition to the Food Stamp Nutrition Education program, Dennee proudly notes the impact of the other program, Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, the program she was originally hired to run.  The program, which has been in existence for over 40 years and funded by the USDA, serves low-income families with children.  Dennee says EFNEP is an empowering program in addition to providing nutritional information.

Participants in both programs tell Dennee, “For the first time, someone has helped us.”  The impact has been so great for some participants that they have become nutrition assistants themselves and teach classes. For some, it is a calling, not a job.

Judy Bartelt from Great Falls credits Dennee with helping her “put her life back together.”  Bartelt was coming out of a bad time in her life after a car accident left her severely injured and required two years of physical therapy. Judy was looking to get back in the work force.  She saw an ad in the newspaper for a nutrition assistant and thought, “this is for me.”  She credits Dennee for giving her a chance.

“Phyllis is a phenomenal person.  She’s such a people builder.  She’s also an amazing mentor and educator,” Bartelt said.

Bartelt, who has a bachelor’s in elementary education from the University of Wyoming and worked for eight years with men a pre-release prison program, worked as a nutrition assistant for 11 years before recently retiring to spend more time helping out with her grandchildren.

Photo of Phyllis Dennee teaching.
Phyllis Dennee presents nutrition information to nutrition assistants.

Over the years, many nutrition assistants have told Phyllis, “You have changed my life.” Not only do nutrition assistants help others make changes in their nutrition habits, they also have improved their own health.  Bartelt said she personally benefited from the program.  She lost 100 pounds.  Dennee’s eyes sparkle when she tells about paraprofessional nutrition assistants who have become confident educators and have “made huge changes” in their own lives. As Bartelt said, “Phyllis makes us feel like real professionals.”

Dennee once said, “Nutrition assistants really live the Chinese proverb: ‘Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.’ In that vein, nutrition assistants are great Montana fishing guides.”

Dennee officially “retired” in July 2008 after serving the university and the state of Montana for 31 years. However, she’s not done yet. She has taken on a part time position as an internship and mentoring coordinator with MSU Extension.  It’s the perfect job for someone who has had such an impact on thousands of lives.

For more information on Extension’s Food and Nutrition programs, go to: http://www.msuextension.org/nutrition/

Or contact Coleen Kaiser, MS, RD, Nutrition Education Coordinator at:
406-994-5702
or email: coleenk@montana.edu

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