Every day the door opens at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank’s Fireweed Diner, no one can tell exactly who will come through. That applies to both diners and the volunteers behind the counter.
Regardless of who they are, they’ll get put to work. That how Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce found himself washing dishes on a Friday afternoon at the food bank while his chief of staff, John Quick, ladled out bowls of soup.
Friday was their first time volunteering for the food bank, carrying on a long borough government tradition. For at least the last decade, borough and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District employees have been jumping over to the food bank on Fridays to volunteer their lunch hours serving food and washing dishes in the diner.
Borough employee Tony Oliver has been the drum major organizing the volunteers for about 10 years. He maintains a list of people who have indicated interest and rounds up people every other week to volunteer, he said.
“I do pick on new employees,” he said. “…There’s probably 30-40 people on the list. It’s a pretty heavy reoccurrence of the same about a dozen people.”
They do anything that needs doing, from serving food to dishes to working in the warehouse. The cooking, though, comes down to Food Bank Head Chef Brenda Dunn, who’s been making lunch at the Fireweed Diner for 17 years.
One the challenges for the Food Bank is to plan meals based on the unpredictable hodgepodge of donations. The food bank can request items, but they may not always be available. What is available may not always be usable. On Friday, Dunn examined a shopping cart full of seedless watermelons, knocking on the outsides to test the quality. Some of them would be edible, she said; others would probably only be good for animal food.
She usually starts out with half a pot of water and works from there.
“You just don’t know what you’re going to have,” she said. “If I have potatoes, I’ll make potato soup. Just like a mom would do.
The food bank usually tries to serve a soup, salad and dessert, whatever they may be. That strikes a good balance between what’s healthy and what people like to eat, she said. Other items get left in shopping carts near the front of the diner, where people can take them as they please. The items too far gone to be good for people to eat are still put out as animal food, which means they still get used.
Oliver said the volunteering program began with just the borough employees before expanding to include school district employees, too. They try to give the food bank staff a break as much as possible in the time they’re there. Sometimes that involves intervening in conflict situations in the diner, though that doesn’t arise too often and the staff can usually deal with it effectively, Oliver said.
Someone else will have to step up to coordinate the volunteers soon, though — Oliver is set to retire from the borough in 187 days. He said he’ll probably stay involved with the food bank on his own, just not with the borough anymore.
It’s far from the only volunteer work he does. He’s the race director for the Tri The Kenai race, a triathalon/duathalon planned for June on the Tsalteshi Trails, as well as the volunteer coordinator, transition coordinator and run coordinator for the race. He also serves on the board of directors for Hospice of the Central Peninsula.
Most of the diners at the food bank probably don’t know they’re public employees behind the counter, Oliver said — like other volunteer opportunities, it’s about personal satisfaction.
“The folks I see volunteer there are on the same road I’m on, which is just that I want to give back to the community,” he said. “What I see is a smile on their face, and interacting with the people that are there … it’s a sense of personal fulfillment.”