Helping feed Oklahomans

Oklahoma Army National Guard Maj. Gen. Michael Thompson, the Adjutant General for Oklahoma; Kathy Nestlen, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma; and Oklahoma Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Jon Harrison (right), director of the Oklahoma National Guard joint staff, (from left) pose for a photo at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City, April 30. The three graduated from Purcell High School and together are assisting their fellow Oklahomans as part of the whole-of-government response to the pandemic.

Maj. Gen. Michael Thompson, Brig. Gen. Jon Harrison and Ms. Kathy Nestlen have led separate, successful lives since they graduated from Purcell High School.

Thompson, who graduated in 1981, is the Adjutant General for Oklahoma, serving as the top military advisor to the Governor of Oklahoma and commander of the Oklahoma National Guard.

Harrison, who graduated in 1984, is the director of the joint staff, Oklahoma National Guard, serving as the primary assistant to Thompson with oversight of more than 1,000 full-time employees.

Nestlen, who is a 1980 graduate, is the Director of Marketing and Communications for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and is responsible for the public platform of the organization, which provides food assistance for 53 of the 77 counties in Oklahoma.

Together, they are collectively serving their state during its response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Between the effects of the pandemic and the falling oil prices, the Regional Food Bank is seeing an increase of up to 60 percent in the need for food assistance, said Nestlen.

On top of that, the Food Bank’s nearly 45,000 yearly volunteers, who help with packaging the food boxes for families and individuals needing assistance, were sidelined due to the pandemic.

“That really impacts us being able to get food out — not having those volunteers,” said Nestlen.

On April 21, 2020, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt activated 50 Air National Guardsmen for two regional food bank sites - 25 at Nestlen’s Oklahoma Regional Food Bank and 25 at the Regional Food Bank for Eastern Oklahoma in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

As the Adjutant General for Oklahoma and the Director of the Joint Staff, Thompson and Harrison have been able to help oversee that activation and response.

“And that’s a big thing for both Soldiers and Airmen,” said Harrison. “When they talk about their service in the National Guard, the last 17 or 20 years we’ve been doing a lot of things overseas, but I think they’re most proud of the things they do in Oklahoma - whether it’s floods or tornadoes or here in this pandemic working at food banks or doing the other things.”

“The thing about this is it’s the reason people join and put this uniform on, they want to help their communities, and their state and their nation,” said Thompson. “Now to have the opportunity to help Oklahomans in this extraordinary time - we’re very happy to be a part of this. To be a part of the Food Bank’s mission, which does so much for Oklahoma, we’re thrilled to be here and be a part of this.”

Though they loosely followed the lives of each other after graduation, the three were able to catch up during Thompson and Harrison’s visit to the Food Bank to see their Guardsmen in action and learn more about the Food Bank’s mission.

“I found out that Kathy was here, and it’s interesting because all the memories associated from the seventies and the eighties revolve around Kathy’s mom – Mrs. Gale,” said Thompson. “Kathy’s here doing good things for Oklahoma, and I just wanted to come out here and see the organization and see her personally because it’s pretty exciting.”

Nestlen recalled how her mom’s home was a revolving door of students during the holidays - all wanting to check in and letting her know how big of an impact she was in their lives. Both Nestlen and Thompson remember Thompson being one of the most frequent ones.

“I have followed Michael’s — I’m sorry, the general’s — career over the last 10 or 15 years, and when we were asking the Governor for National Guard assistance, I wasn’t making the connection then,” said Nestlen. “When I did, it was like, oh my gosh.”

Nestlen, though not knowing Harrison well from school because of their age difference, said she appreciates the way they are all making a difference together now.

“To think that our paths have crossed in this way, at this time, is just great,” said Nestlen. “We’re proud Purcell alumni, and it’s great that our paths have crossed and we’re working together to help meet an incredible need in our state right now.”

Looking forward, the food bank will not need the Oklahoma National Guard’s assistance forever, but they are looking at making the transition as seamless as possible.

“As soon as the pandemic passes, there’s 45,000 people who will be right back here doing great work,” said Harrison. “And I can tell you that [after touring this facility], this is a fascinating building. With the amount and the volume of food that’s here, you really start thinking that’s how many people we’re helping out there.”

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