By Tim Eberly
As Don Bleak squirmed under a school bus in Thermopolis, Wyo., with grease up to his elbows, religion found him.
The 20-year-old malcontent had lost his agricultural scholarship to nearby Casper College earlier that year 1973 and settled into a job putting rickety school buses back on their routes. Paychecks fueled Bleak's appetite for alcohol and late-night carousing.
A boot in the right direction changed everything.
"I was laying under a bus one day working and this guy kicked my foot just to get my attention and he invited me to a Bible study class," Bleak, 47, said.
The foot belonged to Glen Eickmeyer, an associate pastor at a local Baptist church. Eickmeyer must have sensed Bleak's reluctance to attend the meeting, because he called Bleak later that day and talked him into joining the group.
"That's where it all started," said Bleak, the newly appointed director of the North Havre Community Services Food Bank. "I went in with my dirty clothes, just as I was. I quit drinking right away. I quit smoking soon after that."
A few weeks before that meeting, Bleak had picked up a hitchhiker on a regular Friday night. Attempting to spark a conversation, the transient asked Bleak if he was going out drinking that night.
"Something just dinged in me," Bleak said. "I thought, That's all I do.' Just make enough money to go out and get messed up. That was the extent of my life. That started me in the search for something else."
Within six months, Bleak had moved into Eickmeyer's church parsonage, a large home the pastor rented out to trim his expenses, and developed an insatiable thirst for the Bible.
"We would have Bible studies sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning," said Bleak, a Southern Baptist. "It was a very intense growing period, spiritually."
Lonny Ramsey, 49, was one of the men who lived with Eickmeyer and Bleak. "There were five of us and we were all from different backgrounds," Ramsey said. "I had gone through some tough times. Glen saw that as an opportunity to disciple five young men, to put their lives together. That's where Don and I came from. He is as close to me as a brother."
Bleak's baptism soon followed, and later, in 1977, he enrolled at Judson Baptist College in Portland, Ore. Though he had to drop out a couple of times to earn money for tuition, he graduated in 1985, the same year he moved to Louisville, Ky., to attend seminary.
Halfway through school, Bleak accepted his first pastorship in 1988. "I was a full-time pastor and went part time to school. It was a kind of learn as you go type of thing," he said.
A decade later, called to become the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, Bleak moved to Havre with his wife, Laura, and three children, Kaitlin, 15, 13-year-old Korey and Tony, 10. For personal reasons, Bleak resigned from that position in November 1999.
In early October, he took over for Cyndi Murphy, who worked at the nonprofit food bank for 11 years.
"The position was a very difficult one to fill, with Cyndi being there for so long," said Diane Savasten, Bleak's supervisor at the District 4 Human Resources Development Council. "With the applicants we had, we felt Don was the best candidate for the job and he's proven that. He's worked with all walks of the population. He understands people's dilemmas with poverty."
The 30-hour-per-week job allows Bleak to devote his evenings and weekends to his family, a privilege not enjoyed at his previous place of employment, NAPA Auto Parts. "It's just been a big relief to have him home more," said Laura, his wife of 18 years. "Saturday's always been a big family day, and it's hard to enjoy that when one of them is gone."
Support, whether in the form of spirituality or sustenance, is more up Bleak's alley. With the help of another part-time employee and a couple regular volunteers, Bleak coordinates the distribution of an average of eight food baskets each day. "There are days we get one or two and there are days when we get 15," he said.
Size of the baskets is in direct proportion to the number of people in each family, and all recipients can choose the contents for their basket, which is a three-day supply of food. Vegetables, fruits, bread, pasta and different types of meat are all on the "menu."
"It's kind of like they're going shopping. They're actually getting what they want to have," said Bleak, adding that any resident of Hill County can sign up for the food, regardless of income. A family is allowed a maximum of six baskets each year.
An "Elf Drive" is scheduled for Dec. 4 and 5, when the food bank will distribute canned goods in food baskets to those in need. Later, Bleak is coordinating the circulation of Christmas food baskets on Dec. 20, for which he is already in preparation. "That gives us enough time to get the supplies needed," he said. In his two months on the job, Bleak has already realized the daunting path ahead.
"A lot of people don't know the face of hunger in Havre," Bleak said. "I didn't realize it until I started here. They're hungry. They're not starving but they're definitely malnourished."
Bleak refrains from sermonizing to his clients. In fact, it is forbidden by HRDC policy.
"I don't want people to stop coming because they think I'm going to preach to them," Bleak said. "But if they want to come talk to me after hours, I'd be glad to."
Along with his family, Bleak is still a regular at Immanuel Baptist Church. He has not ruled out a return to pastorship, but does not think that time has come.
"I'm still serving and helping people and that is what the pastorhood is all about," Bleak said. "When God calls me back, when he thinks I'm ready, I'll do that. If he doesn't call me back, I'll do whatever is necessary."
Bleak's successor at Immanuel, Tim Burt, said: "That particular line of work is people-oriented. I see a real concern for helping people in his eyes. His character really lends itself to being helpful to people. Dan helps people feel better about themselves even when they're going through hardship and need a helping hand."
An incoming call to Bleak's cell phone momentarily postponed an evening conversation in a booth at Wolfer's Diner in the Atrium Mall. Laura was on the other end, solidifying dinner plans with Don and the family for the night.
It was a special occasion for the Bleaks. That morning, on Monday, the couple signed a petition in Hill County District Court for the adoption of their fourth child, 4-year-old Robbie, who has lived with the family through a foster care program for more than three years. Since 1987, the Bleaks have taken approximately 35 foster children into their home.
To celebrate, the Bleaks' social worker invited the family out for dinner at Pizza Hut.
"It's been a long time coming," Laura Bleak said. "We've been waiting and praying. It's just nice to have him officially and legally a member of the family. He's been, by heart, a member of the family for years now."