Those were the words emailed to The Inlander about Jamie Borgan, the unassuming, almost-meek 32-year-old woman who champions the New Leaf Bakery — a six-month program that trains homeless women in the skills they need to work in the food service industry. It’s a unique program that was recently cited by Seattle’s Building Changes group as a model organization that’s innovating in real ways that can chip away at ending homelessness — and it’s one of several arms of Transitions, a local nonprofit that works to serve women and children in need.
POSITION: Program Director, New Leaf Bakery Café
MY PHILOSOPHY ON LIFE IS: Love what’s in front of you, and panic is not a problem-solving strategy.
I GIVE BACK TO THE COMMUNITY BECAUSE: It’s just what you do.
I WISH FOR: More inclusion and participation for all members of society.
I LOOK UP TO: Everyone I encounter has an impact on me … patient checkers at the grocery store, my stoic grandmother, resilient clients, my tremendous neighbors.
Over the last year, Borgan, a Spokane native, has worked to shepherd 15 women through the program (64 have gone through New Leaf’s training since its inception in 2008). It’s her job to make sure that they are employable.
“Maybe someone is missing teeth — that’s enough to keep someone from getting a job,” she says. And so Borgan helps connect women to the services they need to, say, fix that tooth. But sometimes, the things they come away with from New Leaf are much more than the skills to get them a job.
“I had a young woman graduate from the program and she said she was happy to have the skills to take care of herself, but she was so happy to have skills to feed her child,” Borgan says. It’s those times that make her realize why she is in this line of work.
Borgan has become known — among her colleagues, in her neighborhood and in Spokane’s nonprofit community — as someone who is there for whomever needs her, whenever they need her, for whatever they need her to do.
For example, on a recent smoldering July afternoon: New Leaf needed her at the West Central Marketplace. And so, in a smart salmon-colored blouse and neat khaki capri pants, Borgan unloaded a tray of bread loaves onto a table in the small parking-lot market. She smiled as she talked to customers, telling them that the garlic parmesan loaves were her absolute favorite.
When the stream of customers slowed, Borgan settled into a camping chair behind the table — but only for a minute. It was as if she couldn’t resist helping out elsewhere. Someone needed tape. Someone else needed a table. People had questions. She had answers.
“I don’t think I ever really thought that volunteer work was separate from work. I never thought I’d do anything else aside from what was useful for my community,” she says.
Being “useful” for her community is somewhat of an understatement.
When she’s not working for the New Leaf cause — in the office or at the market — Borgan runs Transitions’ Growing Hope Garden. She sits on the board for Project Hope, a gardening and job skills program for youth in the West Central Neighborhood. On Mondays, she’s become known for bringing her treats (not New Leaf ones — these are her own recipes) to the needle exchange, where she’s volunteered for the past six years.
Yes, she bakes. She also runs in the mornings. She’s also a member of the Ashe West African Drum and Dance Group. She coaches her nephew’s T-ball team. She’s a Spanish tutor.
Oh, and she’s a beekeeper, too.
She says that it isn’t anger at some injustice or some inner rage that has her working so doggedly for the Spokane community.
“I think it’s something people assume — you come to justice from a place of anger,” she says. Of course, there are times that watching the plight of so many homeless mothers trying to feed their hungry children can be tough.
“Yeah, you want the rest of the world to join you,” she says.
But that’s not what brought her here. It’s just that helping your neighbors — whoever they are and whatever they’re going through — is what she believes. It’s how she was raised. “Some of my early moral foundation is grounded in a real notion that people are often marginalized with out their consent,” she says.
Audrey Connor, the 18-year-old coordinator of the Youth Sustainability Council, says it’s that notion that she’s learned from Borgan. They worked together at the Community Building, and have remained friends since.
“I think I just aspire to be as good of a person as she is,” she says. “If you spend time a lot around Jamie, you kind of restore your faith in the human race.”