Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Kenai Alternative High School senior Linda Byrd takes a picture with Hal Smalley, posing as Santa Clause, during the annual Grinch Day celebration on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 at the school in Kenai, Alaska. Byrd also celebrated her 19th birthday during the annual lunch and gift-giving event.

Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Kenai Alternative High School senior Linda Byrd takes a picture with Hal Smalley, posing as Santa Clause, during the annual Grinch Day celebration on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 at the school in Kenai, Alaska. Byrd also celebrated her 19th birthday during the annual lunch and gift-giving event.

Kenai Alternative puts spin on holiday celebration

Teachers and teens at Kenai Alternative High School put their own unique twist on end-of-the-year Christmas parties with the annual Grinch Day before heading off for winter break.

The conversations and laughter of students, staff members and community supporters echoed through the school hallway on Thursday as they all took part in a holiday tradition that began more than two decades. Secretary Phyllis Halstead has been with the school since it opened, and said Grinch Day is meant to send students away on a positive note and with a few well-planned treats.

“The first couple years we tried to do Christmas stuff and some of our kids just never had pleasant experiences with Christmas,” Halstead said. “So we just decided that instead of calling it a Christmas celebration we’d call it a Grinch Day. And they thought that was pretty cool.”

The Grinch is actually nowhere to be found throughout the pre-holiday celebration. Rather, Kenai resident Hal Smalley, who also helps out with the school’s daily handmade breakfasts, dons a Santa Clause outfit to present gifts one by one to each student. Each teen received one of 66 hand-sewn pillow cases filled with snacks, hats and mittens, and other small essentials.

Students and staff prepare for the gift giving with a potluck lunch held in the school’s hallway. Some edible contributions are donated, and others are made by the students themselves.

Senior Tristin Glonek said the lunch is a way to give back to the volunteers who help with the morning meals.

“We set up pretty much everything and a couple students help out in the kitchen, and if someone wants to bring in their own recipe they can cook something and bring it in or they can cook it before this,” Glonek said. “We kind of do this to thank the breakfast crew, and everyone that comes in and helps.”

Later, preschool students pay a visit to the school and are presented with gifts of their own, donated by the Soldotna United Methodist Church. River City Books in Soldotna also gives reading materials to both the preschoolers and high school students.

Snacks for the pillow cases were donated by the members of the Soldotna United Methodist Church, the Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church and the River Covenant Church, all of whom organize the school’s breakfasts. Principal Loren Reese said the event is a good mix of community and student support.

“This day is basically supported by community organizations,” he said. “You’ve got the Lions (Club), you’ve got individuals, you have three church groups coming in and support(ing) us.”

Students also spend the time leading up to Grinch Day participating in other seasonal projects. Educator Vickie Roney had her students learn about globally celebrated Christmas traditions. She said that experience, along with optional gift and food-making sessions after school, all help to expose the teens to concepts and skills they’ll need later in life.

“We want our kids to be showing their best foot forward at all times, and we try to teach them job skills and life skills,” Roney said. “We try to go beyond the regular curriculum as much as we can because they need to be able to leave here with real life skills.”

As for future Grinch Day festivities, Halstead said there aren’t plans to change anything, but to keep the celebration around as long as it is helpful to the students.

“The kids just like it,” Halstead said. “We have food for them all day long. (It’s) just something that will keep them involved with each other and with the school. A lot of these kids don’t know how to have fun with one another, and so (it’s about) just trying to teach them how to let your guard down and have fun.”

Reese, who wore a camouflage elf hat while refilling the supply pillow case gifts, said the tradition hasn’t changed one bit since he joined the school seven years ago.

“I’m the bag runner,” he said. “My favorite part is seeing the kids and our breakfast crew together, and just see the kids smile… It’s a good way to send the kids off on their winter break.”

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Kenai Alternative High School senior Kody Vaught accepts a hand-made pillow case filled with treats from Hal Smalley, posing as Santa Clause, on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 during the school's annual Grinch Day in Kenai, Alaska.

Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Kenai Alternative High School senior Kody Vaught accepts a hand-made pillow case filled with treats from Hal Smalley, posing as Santa Clause, on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 during the school’s annual Grinch Day in Kenai, Alaska.

Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Students and staff at Kenai Alternative High School enjoy the annual Grinch Day lunch on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 at the school in Kenai, Alaska. Students help set up the meal and cook some of the dishes before they are presented with gifts to send them off to their winter break.

Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Students and staff at Kenai Alternative High School enjoy the annual Grinch Day lunch on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 at the school in Kenai, Alaska. Students help set up the meal and cook some of the dishes before they are presented with gifts to send them off to their winter break.

Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Susan Smalley helps re-erect a tree that fell during Kenai Alternative High School's annual Grinch Day celebration while her husband, Hal Smalley, poses as Santa Clause on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 at the school in Kenai, Alaska. Hal Smalley presented each student with a hand-made pillow case full of treats as a send off to their winter break.

Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Susan Smalley helps re-erect a tree that fell during Kenai Alternative High School’s annual Grinch Day celebration while her husband, Hal Smalley, poses as Santa Clause on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 at the school in Kenai, Alaska. Hal Smalley presented each student with a hand-made pillow case full of treats as a send off to their winter break.

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