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  • Writer's pictureDarian Dyer

Profile in Compassion: Pattiann Bennett

Each month we will feature a “Profile in Compassion” from a firewood bank to share inspiring stories of bank leaders, volunteers, or firewood recipients. This month we feature Pattiann Bennett, leader of the St Michael & All Angels Wood Ministry in Fortine, Montana. Please feel free to suggest the next one!


What is your occupation and background/relation within the community?

I was the priest at St Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Eureka for 20 years and retired 2 years ago. I'm involved in the community through the church and a discretionary fund which enables me to help people pay electric bills, rent, buy propane, groceries and gas for the car. At Christmas I link people who want to help others. People who have no church call me when a loved one dies.

I've been in this unique position to help for a long time.

What made you want to get involved in/start your firewood bank? 

I had been deeply concerned about the giant jagged piles of timber left in the forests to burn when acres of land were thinned. I knew people who could use that wood and I couldn't understand why it was burned and not piled near the roads so folks could get to it. I always felt this was poor stewardship and that something better than burning all that good wood could have happened.

My husband and I have heated with wood for 48 years, here in Montana and in Connecticut where we moved from. We've shared our firewood over the years, so when I learned about the Wood Bank in Dillon, Mt., a ministry of the Episcopal Church there, run by the Rev Harry Neeley for 16 years at that time [2010], I knew St. Michael & All Angels could have a Wood Bank too.

I started asking people in the community where we might set it up, where the wood could come from, who would do the work, how would we pay for it? I went to a local rancher and was offered the site we are still on, the Forest Service in Eureka for logs, which didn't happen, but found them otherwise, made fliers, formed a mission statement, talked to people in town about helping and asked for donations. It all unfolded as it should and here we are still evolving 13 years later.

What motivates your work? In what ways is this work meaningful for you?

Our motivation is to help people be warm in winter.

Plenty of folks can't afford to buy enough firewood. In 2011 when we began, the cost for a cord or truck load of wood was a lot less than it is now. That first year we gave 35 pick up loads out and thought that was awesome. Last year we gave 250+ loads out and this year we've given already to date 150. There is a palpable sense of wonder and awe on work days of those who come again and again and again, dedicated to what goes on there, working together to help neighbors and people they've never met.

The Wood Bank gives purpose to our lives whether we are organizer, sawyer, splitter, stacker, cookie or soup maker, deliverer, raker of the yard or even the one who brings the logs in. We've formed dear friendships, we welcome new volunteers in and greet those who need wood with open hearts and arms, literally. We take Jesus' words to heart when he says "Love your neighbor and Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me". We're doing something for someone else. It feels good to serve.

Fun is a motivator...We have a lot of fun at the Wood Bank.

What do you find most satisfying about the work you are doing?

A most satisfying thing to me is how the Wood Bank has developed into a familiar, solid entity that our community of Eureka is proud of. It's completely satisfying to be able to say yes to those who need wood and then deliver what we have worked so hard to provide. It is totally satisfying to welcome new people in, who have never been part of such a group effort and to share the best of what people can do. It is deeply satisfying to me to see all the work I do, with the help of hundreds of other people, end up as this well managed, safe, efficient, hard working, successful, generous, heart warming, sharing, long running, evolving community effort to make the world a better place. To make our little community a better place.

What’s the hardest or most frustrating?

The hardest is when someone gets hurt, which has only happened 3 times in 13 years. The most frustrating, is when people bring politics in, we do not talk politics there.

What's your favorite story related to firewood bank work?

There are many stories but one that comes to mind at the moment is this one. Two winter's ago a few of us were at the stack pile to load up trucks. A high white truck pulled in and when he backed to the pile we saw all over the back window the most vile, demeaning, prejudiced, sickening slogans of every kind. It made me sick. I didn't say anything of course and fought the thoughts I was having about this tall young man with bad skin and shaved head. This was a first at the wood bank.

The young woman in the truck next to this one who we had just loaded up, came over to help with his load and said to him, "I wondered who this truck belonged to. I've seen it in town." We loaded it up, all of us quiet and with care, maybe not knowing what else to say or under the dark energy coming at us from that back window.  It was awful.

And when he was ready to go, he came around and shook our hands profusely and said, "Thank you, thank you so much, you don't know how you have blessed me today." The tall young man blessed us back by showing that the Wood Bank does more than one thing. The Wood Bank provides warmth in the cold AND it touches people's hearts in ways we can't imagine. It was a good day.

What's a piece of advice/words of wisdom you have for other people working/volunteering at firewood banks?

I'm not sure the organizer of our wood bank, I've always worked right there along with everyone, helping where needed. But as the leader I've learned that I can't run the splitter all morning, even if that's what I would rather do. I need to watch what's happening all over the yard. I'm the one to watch for safety. I'm the one to see where someone might be better suited for a different job. I tell each one to find their niche, what are they good at? What would they like to do? What is their specialty? We need people to keep the feet clear of the sawyers so they don't trip on the pieces. We need to rake up as we go so we're not tripping on all that mess. When trucks come in to load up we need to watch that the way is clear. New sawyers need to know how long the pieces should be. Someone needs to fill bags of kindling. Make sure the gate is shut every time when the cows are in the field. Everything is put away at the end of the day...

There are so many things that make the Wood Bank flow and by now everyone who is a regular, knows all of this, so they take it on themselves to watch too and call an alert if they're concerned about something. We're all in this together and only want the best. We're all on the same team.


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