VIRGINIA, Minn. - Phyllis Rayton moved easily about the kitchen at the Salvation Army in Virginia, preparing a meal of chicken tenders basted with rosemary sauce and green beans cooked with bacon for a crowd of 50.
Around her neck, she wore a sparkly crown-shaped pendant. The necklace is something of a story of Rayton’s journey - from a desperate childhood and a series of abusive relationships in her home state of Kansas, to an unexpected journey to the Iron Range, where she and her children immediately became homeless, to getting back on her feet thanks to help and years of hard work. The crown echoes the symbol of her adopted town of Virginia, the “Queen City,” and the place that helped Rayton get her life in order.
“I used every resource I knew about to get where I’m at now,” Rayton said.
And now, Rayton is giving back to all those agencies that once gave to her. She volunteers to cook and serve meals at the Salvation Army, and also serves on the board. She has helped build homes for Habitat for Humanity, including her own. She is a member of the Soroptimists International of Virginia, after receiving their “Live Your Dream” scholarship award.
“She really built her life from almost nothing,” said Susan Garrett, community resources manager for North St. Louis County Habitat for Humanity. “I continue to be impressed with Phyllis; she has really given back to this community … She is a rock star.”
When she arrived in town in 2012, at age 29, she was trying to distance herself from an abusive husband. Rayton, who grew up near Topeka, Kan., knew that her father had moved to “one of the states that starts with ‘M,’” she said, but that was all she knew. After briefly connecting with her father, she packed up her three children and everything she owned. She had about $700 in cash and the promise of an apartment, she said.
But when they arrived in Virginia, that plan fell apart. Her father dropped her off at a downtown Virginia hotel, and they rarely spoke after that, she said. Rayton and her children, then 13, 11, and 4, were homeless.
In tears, Rayton called her sister in Kansas, asking her to drive north and pick them up.
“For the first time in my life, she told me no,” Rayton said.
Instead, Rayton found a first lifeline from the front desk clerk at the former Coates Hotel. Noticing Rayton’s distress, she mentioned that a nearby restaurant was looking for kitchen help.
Cooking had seemed to come naturally to Rayton. Though she had no formal training in the kitchen, she had learned by experience - and she got the job.
“My first three paychecks went to paying for the hotel room,” Rayton said. The family was living on “sandwiches and Ramen noodles made in a coffee pot,” but Rayton was starting to feel some hope. She accessed public assistance, and started going to the Salvation Army for help.
There were times during her own childhood when the refrigerator in her home held no food at all, and the family relied on free meals.
“To me as a child, it was shameful to go there,” Rayton said. “But now, the Salvation Army is so important to me.”
The Salvation Army in Virginia was where Rayton met her adoptive “mom,” Claudy Lehman of Cherry. Lehman volunteers in the Salvation Army kitchen, preparing meals for the nightly Supper Club free community meal. Years ago, Lehman also “adopted” a family for Christmas. When Lehman dropped off a collection of gifts for the family, she happened to meet the single mother she had adopted - Rayton, who was there volunteering with the Salvation Army’s youth group.
“She’s been my daughter ever since,” Lehman said. Rayton and her family will be sitting at Lehman’s Easter dinner table to share a meal of ham and cheesy potatoes, and the families will play games together after the meal.
“Phyllis is a worker,” Lehman said, describing the traits that she admires about Rayton. “She’s a tough lady; she’s very giving. She’s willing to help anybody that needs it.”
“She has her dream, and she’s going for it,” said Soroptimist International of Virginia President Mary Eddy Samuelson. “Phyllis realizes where she came from, and what she can accomplish.”
After receiving the organization’s “Live Your Dream” scholarship, which helps women further their education, Rayton now serves on the award selection committee.
“She is paying it forward,” Samuelson said.
And Rayton isn’t stopping. She plans to open her own catering business - a few hours after she prepared the chicken and green beans for the Salvation Army Supper Club, she had a meeting with a potential silent partner for the business - and eventually, her own restaurant. Over her years of working in various Iron Range restaurants, she has won several cooking and hospitality awards.
“I wanted something better,” Rayton said. “I never had that opportunity when I was back home. The lifestyle I lived there, I would never tolerate now.”
It’s still not easy, Rayton said. Today, she works as the kitchen supervisor at the Range Mental Health Center, but until March, she had needed to work three jobs to make ends meet.
“I’m still financially unstable,” Rayton said. She could do more catering jobs if she had reliable transportation, and putting the pieces together for her catering business is taking a little longer than she would like. But she is patient. She will get there.
Garrett believes in Rayton, too, she said.
“She had a willingness to do anything and everything she could do to help her and her family, and with such grace and humility,” Garrett said. Rayton exemplifies Habitat for Humanity’s mission of giving “a hand up, not a handout,” Garrett said.
And Rayton sees her place in the community now as one of the people who can offer a hand up, at least sometimes, she said.
“Now, I see that if people see someone trying, and doing the best that they can, the community is willing to come together to do the best they can,” Rayton said.
Phyllis Rayton shared her story at the Soroptimist International of Virginia’s spring “Chick Flicks” Ladies Night Out. Hear about more inspirational women at this spring’s event on Wednesday, April 24, at Cinema 6 in Mt. Iron. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. with wine and food; movie begins at 6:30 p.m. Call Mary Eddy Samuelson at (218) 749-2001 for tickets.