Chamber breakfast honors Kirsten Levitt as Citizen of the Year

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 12-16-2022 6:50 PM

DEERFIELD — In its 40th year, 40 individuals from across the county were nominated to be the Greenfield Recorder’s Citizen of the Year — a record number of nominees — with some receiving several nominations.

“It’s an honor that has our readers and residents at its core, as it is they who nominate people and tell us why someone is deserving of this honor,” Pioneer Valley Executive Editor Dan Crowley told guests at the 40th annual Citizen of the Year Holiday Breakfast at Deerfield Academy on Friday. “There were educators and environmental advocates; people who volunteer selflessly to serve veterans, seniors, children, people with disabilities. There were business owners, government officials, health care workers, a police officer, a mom and even a photojournalist.”

At the end of the day, Crowley said, the person who “emerged from the pack” was a self-taught chef and retired educator whose work in food justice and community building has profoundly impacted Franklin County for more than a decade.

“Through her work, she is fostering a vision and set of values that is transformative and in the best interest of everyone in our community,” Crowley said, reading from one of the recipient’s nominations. “That is what is at the heart of this award. It’s my honor to present the Greenfield Recorder’s 2022 Citizen of the Year award to Kirsten Levitt.”

The announcement was met with a round of applause and a standing ovation for Levitt, executive director and chef of Stone Soup Cafe, the pay-what-you-can meal program serving weekly meals from All Souls Church on Main Street in Greenfield. Legislators and city officials were among those to offer words of congratulations to Levitt.

“If you’ve met Kirsten, you know how deeply she deserves this award,” said Franklin County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jessye Deane. “I’m so proud I get to live and work in a community that has a Kirsten Levitt and a Stone Soup Cafe.”

With a snowy background as her backdrop, Levitt expressed her gratitude for the recognition while emphasizing her appreciation to the other 39 nominees “for all of the work they’re doing to make our world a better place.”

“I am totally honored and humbled by this award,” Levitt said. “Hearing from Dan two weeks ago — it made me realize that this is a siren call to continue on the path that has been sounding in my soul since birth.”

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Two firms eye First National Bank in Greenfield for reuse
Invasive species mile-a-minute vine found again in Buckland
Alleged hit-and-run crash in Greenfield sends one to hospital
My Turn: Biden’s record and accomplishments are extremely positive
Franklin County transitions to new interoperable radio system
‘No one like him’: Family, friends remember late historian at ice cream social in his honor

Now the leader of a pay-what-you-can cafe serving upwards of 500 meals per week, Levitt’s journey began in her mother’s kitchen, at barely 2 years old, baking sugar cookies for holiday parties.

“When I wasn’t helping her cook or bake, I was rattling around in the cabinet, banging on pots and pans,” she said. “My most favorite status at the holiday party was always at the sink.

“The dishwasher is the most beloved,” she continued. “Even though I was trained as a dancer and a singer and thought I would go into the theater, I was most comfortable ... making the people around me happy, and that’s true today.”

Levitt shared several stories from her personal life — from her upbringing in New York City as a child of divorced parents who often struggled to make ends meet, to her decision to drop out of high school and later college. She shared the challenges she faced as a financially strained single mother in Ohio.

“My life experience is one of trauma, abuse, poverty, challenges and stigmas, and lots and lots of shame,” she said. “And if you take nothing else away from this, you’re not stupid if you drop out of high school; you’re not a lesser person if you don’t have enough food to eat or if you have to make really hard choices. In reality, all of these experiences have given me the opportunity of learning and expressing the way I want our community to look, because I don’t want people to have to live with what I lived with.”

Levitt, who’d earned a GED certificate, eventually returned to school to become a teacher. In 1999, she moved to Greenfield to be closer to family and begin her 20-year-long career as a teacher in the Pioneer Valley. That same year, she joined All Souls Church in search of the community she’d found as a member of a Unitarian Universalist church in Ohio.

“Once again, the holiday parties happened at my house … and all my beloved started to become my family again, and my family of choice grew,” she recounted.

Levitt reflected on the concept of “radical hospitality” — a practice she said she now understands was learned from her parents.

“Radical hospitality is a way of building relationships, welcoming the stranger into your life, and making this deep connection that will last longer than you ever know,” Levitt said. “Radical hospitality provided that to me because I gave something to you, which was easy — love and kindness and welcoming and curiosity.”

To that end, Stone Soup Cafe, she said, has become the nexus of her life’s work.

“It provides me with an opportunity to be of service,” Levitt said. “It does not matter which skill or talent I use, my life work is to be of service.”

As she began to wrap up her speech, Levitt repeated a phrase she’s used time and time again, which is that her work is hard work, but it’s also “heart work.”

“It brings me so much joy and satisfaction,” she said. “There is no them and us, or us and them; that construct is a lie. There is only us.”

Her remarks ended with a plea to the community to get involved.

“Sign up and volunteer,” Levitt said. “Support us through your business benevolence; share generously of your time … because your community will pay you back in ways you will never be able to measure.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

]]>