If you were to walk through the doors of Hope Lutheran Church in Bozeman, Mont., looking like a college student, chances are that Don and Diane Heyden would be the first people to greet you. For the past seven years they’ve played an important role in connecting the students with their congregation.
Every month the Heydens host a dinner for Montana State University students at their Bozeman home. As many as 20 get together to unwind and share a hearty meal of chili, casseroles or burgers.
The Heydens didn’t set out to host regular gatherings when they invited several students to their home seven years ago. Andrew Byl and Patrick Bender, who were spending the summer in Bozeman between their sophomore and junior years, volunteered to help with church landscaping. To show their gratitude, the Heydens began inviting them over for barbecues. After school started, the dinners continued. Roommates tagged along. Then roommates invited other friends and, well, everything sort of snowballed.
And that was just fine with the Heydens, who relish their role as surrogate parents or grandparents. “We have one large extended family that is absolutely wonderful,” Don said.
Stephen Schmidt, pastor of Hope, said that on Sundays he often notices the couple sitting with at least a handful of students during worship — always in the second row, although sometimes they spill over into another pew. “They embody hospitality,” he said. “It’s a natural spiritual gift they have.”
The Heydens’ monthly gatherings provide not only a home-cooked meal but laughter, camaraderie and stress relief for the students. Their home is a place where students can eat, connect and have fun — and leave refreshed to do homework, said Amanda Olsen, who began attending the dinners as a freshman.
Although many of the participants are Lutheran, everyone is welcome. “We have Presbyterians, Catholics, Methodists,” Diane said.
There’s not much better than getting to relax and have a home-cooked meal after a long week of schoolwork and tests, said Andrew Bender, a recent graduate who attended the dinners for four years.
Bender and his girlfriend also visit the Heydens outside of the scheduled dinners once or twice a month, going over to play cards or just hang out. “It’s nice to be around a different generation,” especially a couple with important life lessons and interesting stories to share, Bender said. “[They’re] our Bozeman grandparents.”
When someone’s 21st birthday rolls around, there’s a good chance the Heydens will treat that student to a celebratory drink. (If you’re over 21 and want to sip a beer at the gatherings, that’s fine. Diane has a spreadsheet with everyone’s date of birth and does keep track.)
Before retirement, Diane was a sixth-grade teacher and Don was an engineer. Married for 36 years in what is a second marriage for both, the couple moved to Bozeman from California 18 years ago. Tired of the desert, Don was drawn to Montana in part because of fly-fishing.
The Heydens have six children from their first marriages. But they consider the college students who visit them to be family as well.
Diane estimates that they’ve seen 22 of them graduate with bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees or both. Many still keep in touch, letting the couple know when important life events occur. The Heydens even attended a wedding in Nebraska of one of their “firstborns” — their term for the original group of students.
Diane said she enjoys seeing how students mature from their freshman years to when they get comfortable with the group and become more outgoing. Part of that blossoming probably has something to do with her effervescent personality. “Diane is outgoing and bubbly and talkative and really just wants to know everything about you when she meets you, and it’s great,” Olsen said.
Not even a huge snowstorm can derail the meals. When a winter storm knocked the power out, the group carried on, even with less food. “We shared more stories and laughed harder than we ever had,” said Shannyn Wilson, a lifelong Lutheran from Whippany, N.J., who has attended the dinners for three years.
Olsen, who is a mechanical engineering major, says she’s been grateful for the chance to meet other students with whom she wouldn’t have crossed paths otherwise.
The dinners also have been a catalyst for many students to find a place for themselves at Hope.
When the Heydens invited Wilson to a dinner the first Sunday she visited Hope, she was hesitant to accept but is forever grateful she did.
Because of that dinner Wilson started working in the nursery, attended the ski trips and helped direct the youth play at Hope.
“Don and Diane are like a third set of grandparents for many of us, and two of the most amazing people I have ever met,” Wilson said. “With Don and Diane you know that you always have someone who loves you and wants to spend time with you.”
The Heydens feel much the same. “We just thank the Lord for the blessings of these kids every single day,” Don said.