Get to know Eileen Bradshaw, executive director of Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma
By Michael Smith Tulsa World
The numbers are staggering: 1 in 6 Oklahomans (more than 650,000) don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and 1 in 4 state children will go to bed tonight without having eaten a proper meal.
These numbers are what drive the mission of the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma in Tulsa and what drive its executive director, Eileen Bradshaw, to serve.
Under her leadership — she celebrates her fifth anniversary next month, coming after she served Emergency Infant Services as executive director for five years — the food bank has been recognized as one of the top 10 charities in the nation and as an award-winner for its social justice efforts.
The organization’s events have grown bigger and better, from the current Restaurant Week running through Monday (with proceeds going toward the Food for Kids program) to Empty Bowls and the Giving Spirits whisky-tasting fundraisers.
The food bank, serving 24 counties in eastern Oklahoma, has even been named as one of the most fun places at which you can volunteer.
Just watch a group, from Girl Scouts to senior citizens, repackage food donations and you will see the passion of the place, whether they are scooping pasta from huge containers into bags or smiling as they peel onions.
“We have such an incredible array of volunteers, like a woman who retired from banking who goes out on our food truck, and then there’s the Whippersnappers, our senior volunteers,” she said, singling out just a few of the more than 4,000 volunteers a year whose efforts save the food bank more than $1 million a year in payroll.
September is Hunger Action Month, a nationwide initiative that beyond Restaurant Week includes events for volunteering and drives to call legislators about the issues of food insecurity, Bradshaw said.
“I really do believe that food is a right. Sometimes people rush into making judgments about people who are hungry, people who do all the right things but are still having food needs,” she said.
Bradshaw recalled her parents’ divorce when she was young and her mother looking for work after having been a stay-at-home mom.
“We didn’t make it to a food pantry, but we had a lot of help from family and other people,” she said. “Not everyone has a family member to turn to because the support system can vary from family to family. It can be that simple and have nothing to do with intellect.”
Bradshaw had her eyes opened to these realities on many occasions at the grocery store.
“I did not realize the scope of people who are working, but they are struggling,” she said, “until when I was making grocery purchases in the name of the Food Bank, and the cashier says, ‘Thank you. I go to this pantry, this church, this organization because I need their help to get by.’
“Or that their child is part of our backpack program (grown from providing weekend food to 500 school kids to now more than 5,000). I didn’t realize how many people I’m coming in contact with on an everyday basis that are in this situation: They get paid on the first, pay rent on the second, and then they go looking for food.”
It’s an issue in which more Oklahomans should take a self-interest, Bradshaw said.
“Our state can’t flourish if we have food-insecure people because they can’t be the best that they can be.”
Bradshaw took the time to answer a few more questions, some of which included the help of her family: her husband, Steve, a banker with Central Bank of Oklahoma, and her three children — Lucie, Brendan and Clare.
How would you describe your perfect vacation?
I like to go to the beach and read. We have a place that we go to in Alabama. Sit on the beach and read, perfect.
Are you excited about anything coming up at the movies or on TV? What are you reading right now?
I am super excited about “Bridget Jones’s Baby,” I just love those movies. As for reading, I recently ordered a book that I read a long time ago and I remembered loving, “Godel, Escher, Bach” (a 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner). Let me tell you, either it is denser than I remember or I’m denser than I remember.
What is your idea of a perfect weekend?
I think I had it a couple of weeks ago. We went to dinner with friends on Friday night. We got up and went to Nam Hai (food market) on Saturday morning, and we picked up noodles and spices, and with the kids we made pad Thai, something we’d never done before. Then on Sunday, we went and enjoyed Cairde na Gael, our favorite Gaelic band, on the patio at Arnie’s. That was a fun weekend.
Can you recall someone who was influential in your life?
My grandmother and my mother were both very strong women. My grandmother was a gentle spirit, and she had all these sayings, like “Smile and the world smiles with you.” They really did instill in me that a positive outlook was within my control and an asset.
What is your most prized possession?
I think I’ll go with my most sentimental possession and that would be my engagement ring. Unfortunately, I bang into everything, and I remember it was at a softball field in Bixby that I noticed the main stone had fallen out of my wedding ring. I put the ring in a drawer for, like, a couple of years. Then one day my husband and I went to El Rio Verde on a Saturday morning, and he had had the stone replaced. He gave me the ring, and he proposed all over again. He re-upped the lease.