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Richfield Woman Turns—and Gives—40

The mother and English teacher marks her 40th birthday by helping homeless women.

For many women turning 40, a weekend away from the kids may be at the top of their birthday gift list.

But for Jen Behnke, a Richfield resident and seventh-grade English teacher, the gift at the top of her list is one that will benefit others.

“I have everything I’ve ever wanted,” Behnke told Patch. “I have a husband, a wonderful family, a great job, a house that I picked and could pay for—I don’t need anything else.”

Behnke turns 40 on Dec. 27. Rather than accepting formal gifts, Behnke invited friends and family members—and her entire e-mail address book—to help her collect hundreds of household necessiies. Her goal? To make 40 gift baskets for homeless women transitioning into stable living through Simpson Housing Services.

“There are women who have been homeless for years apiece,” Behnke said. “[Finding this out] made me reflect on how privileged and lucky I am, especially at this time in the economy.”

From bed sheets and flashlights to plates and multi-purpose cleaners, Behnke's baskets will contain items from among a list of 20. Behnke has gotten help from people at church, school and even her nephew’s Boy Scout troop, with roughly 20 baskets near completion as of Dec. 21. Her 7-year-old daughter, Sophie, is also getting in on the action.

“When I was young, I thought that by the time I was 40 I should have all these achievements—teacher of the year or have written a book,” she said. “And here I am about to turn 40, and all that doesn’t matter anymore. Now, I'd rather be someone who has compassion and does some good in the world.

“I don’t want it to sound like I’m making some great sacrifice," she added. "People are going to be spending money on bed sheets and cooking pots rather than buying me beers. It’s not saintly. It’s pretty ordinary.”

“I think it’s incredibly selfless,” countered her husband, Bret. “When I turned 40, I wanted to have a party and have my friends around, but she’s doing something that is helping other people.”

While she may not complete the baskets by her birthday, she's committed to finishing.

“It may need to be something I continue through my 40th year,” Behnke said. “It’s something that’s in my head now and I have to accomplish.”

Behnke and her family are holding an open house from 2-7 p.m. Tuesday to put the baskets together. To donate items, e-mail Jen Behnke at bjjsbehnke@comcast.net. For more information on volunteering with Simpson Housing Services or to donate money to Behnke's cause, contact Christina Giese, volunteer coordinator for Simpson, at cgiese@simpsonhousing.org or visit simpsonhousing.org.

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