SIERRA VISTA — For the past 12 years, Barbara Blankenship has volunteered at Good Neighbor Alliance (GNA), where she prepared favorite home-cooked recipes for those who turn to the homeless shelter for dinner.
While she has enjoyed her volunteerism there, on Nov. 27, Blankenship cooked her last shelter meal.
“This was not an easy decision for me, but I’m 75 years old, and standing on my feet cooking and serving was starting to take a toll on my body,” Blankenship said. “I’m beginning to feel the aches and pains of old age, so decided I needed to slow down with some of my volunteer work. l feel blessed I had that experience at the shelter, and love the friends I made there, but it’s time for me to hang up my apron.”
During her years at GNA, Blankenship became a familiar face among shelter volunteers, residents and employees, where she earned a reputation for her big smile and great cooking.
“Whenever I cooked, they always came back for seconds,” she said, laughing. “I raised six children, so I got pretty good at preparing all kinds of food. My experience in the kitchen at home carried over to the shelter.”
Some of the residents’ favorite cuisines included Chinese, Italian and soul food, said Blankenship, who loves cooking, and especially likes watching people enjoy what she’s prepared.
Describing Blankenship as “amazing behind the grill and someone who never disappoints,” shelter manager Jeff Arseneau said, “It’s because of Barbara and other volunteers like her that our evening meals are such a success here. We never heard a single complaint about Barbara’s cooking. She was a great volunteer, always on time, very friendly with everyone, and would often lead us in prayer before the meal.
“She will be missed.”
Shelter Executive Director Kathy Calabrese shared similar comments about the longtime volunteer.
“Barbara was always dependable, friendly and fun to work with. She volunteered her cooking services once a month, but would come in more often if we needed her. I’m sad she’s leaving us, but we were blessed to have her all those years.”
Blankenship, whose history in Sierra Vista dates more than six decades, is well-known for her community service and volunteerism.
She first arrived in Sierra Vista in 1954 from New Jersey when her mother was transferred to Fort Huachuca through the civil service.
“My mother worked at Fort Mammoth at the time, and I was 11 years old when we moved here,” she said. “I remember being really excited about moving to the West because of all the cowboy movies I watched.”
Blankenship said she made friends easily, and has the distinction of being Buena High School’s first black pom-pom girl.
“Growing up here was a fun experience for me,” she said. “When we moved here, I was in seventh grade and attended school at Captain Whitside School on Fort Huachuca. That school has since been repurposed to an ‘in-and-out’ processing center, called Whitside Hall.”
Blankenship attended Tombstone High as a freshman, then transferred to Buena when Sierra Vista built a high school. She is a 1963 Buena graduate.
Several of her classmates still live in Sierra Vista, and they occasionally get together and talk about the fun times they had sipping malts at Sue & Herbs, watching movies at the outdoor Geronimo Theater, and going bowling.
“None of those places are still around, which is a little sad,” she said.
Today, Blankenship stays busy with a number of volunteer activities. She is president of the Military Order of Purple Heart Auxiliary, a volunteer for the Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery and a longtime member of the Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers (SWABS).
“I am the only woman SWABS member who dresses up for the different events,” she said. “And my husband, Gary Blankenship, is vice commander of the Military Order of Purple Heart, so we both stay pretty busy with all the different events we attend.”
Blankenship said she gets tremendous satisfaction out of helping people in need, which is what drew her to the homeless shelter.
“When I first started at GNA, my daughter, Allyne McFalls, and my longtime school friend Olga Galindo were working with me. We were called the ‘Sisters of Soul’ by employees and the other volunteers. After Olga was no longer able to volunteer because of her health, my granddaughter, Rachel, started volunteering with my daughter and I.
“So I have a lot of fond memories of my time at GNA, and it was a difficult decision for me to leave.”
Blankenship may be stepping away from her volunteer work at the homeless shelter, but she can be found at different events throughout Cochise County.
Look for her in any number of Tombstone parades, dressed in 1880s attire while representing the buffalo soldiers, manning information booths, or simply having fun with friends.
“I may be slowing down a little, but I’m not going away,” Blankenship promised.