The 77-Year-Old Peaks Islander Who’s Never Missed a Soup Kitchen Shift
Volunteering comes naturally to Preble Street factotum Linda Holtslander.
By Mira Ptacin | Photographed by Brian Fitzgerald
Linda Holtslander remembers a story her dad once told her. One day, when he was young, he looked around the large table in the family dining room, filled with his brothers and sisters (he was the oldest of what would come to be 14 siblings) but also filled with strangers, and he asked his mother, “Ma, why are there so many people we don’t know eating here?” Holtslander’s grandmother replied, simply, “They are hungry, and they need our help.”
A retired library administrator whose career took her from metro San Francisco to the DC area to a Fulbright stint in Finland, Holtslander began volunteering three days a week at Portland’s Preble Street Resource Center shortly after moving to Maine. That was three years ago, and she hasn’t taken a day off since (and frequently puts in extra days). Preble Street, which provides meals and other services for Portland’s unhoused population, named her its volunteer of the year in 2018. She volunteers on days when weather makes for turbulent ferry rides from her home on Peaks Island. She volunteered when she was getting daily radiation treatments for a bout of cancer, taking just an hour off — her lunch break — so a friend could drive her to treatment and back. When she was temporarily furloughed from volunteering during the pandemic’s initial outbreak this spring, she shared videos on social media about Preble Street’s efforts and the challenges the pandemic posed for the organization.
When she first walked into the kitchen there, the staff was blasting heavy metal, and Holtslander, whose favorite band is Deep Purple, knew it was the place for her. She confessed she didn’t know how to cook. No problem, the staff told her, there are always dishes. Holtslander has since washed mountains, palisades, citadels of dishes. She’s assisted in the office too, folding, stuffing, and gluing thousands of envelopes for fundraising campaigns and fielding phone calls from everyone from Brownie scouts who’ve baked cookies for the kitchen to parents wondering whether caseworkers have been in touch with their child.
Two years ago, Holtslander marked her 75th birthday by organizing a sock drive, with a goal of donating 500 pairs of socks to Preble Street. Friends and tipped-off strangers started filling her mailbox with socks, even handing them to her on the street. Preble Street staff gave her 100 pairs as a birthday gift. By the time she blew out her candles, Holtslander had garnered more than 1,600 pairs — which she is loath to attribute to her personal charisma. “It’s simple,” she says, “people just want to help.”
After three years in the Preble Street dish pit and elsewhere, Holtslander recognizes many of Preble Street’s clients on the street, and they recognize her back. Ultimately, she says, the work of volunteering isn’t really about packing 300 lunches in a day but about making it clear to others that there are people who care about and support them. “When you make eye contact with someone who is often ignored, someone who has been struggling to maintain their dignity, you are telling them that in that moment you see them, that they are not invisible,” Holtslander says. “So say hello. It may help them hang on to tomorrow.”