For nearly two decades, Kenai Alternative High School students have been eating their home cooked morning meal at school.
While the dates of origin range somewhere between 19-23 years, the tradition still consistently places more than 100 free meals on the table each week. A new rotation began Monday, and new kids coming in are still getting used to the options.
“One kid came in, not sure if he could afford to eat here, so we gave him a big discount,” said long-time volunteer Susan Smalley with a laugh.
While it isn’t a traditional household, sitting down and eating together is phenomenal, Smalley said.
By 7:30 a.m. Wednesday students began to trickle in for the promise of biscuits and gravy. A group of students sat tightly packed around one table in the school’s kitchen. Teachers, Principal Loren Reese and Kenai’s School Resource Officer Alex Prins sat around another, while the “breakfast crew” mingled between both.
While Prins has been visiting the building once a week for the past five years, Wednesday is a standout.
“I’m from the South — it’s the biscuits,” Prins said.
The recipe has been used since the program began, Smalley said in a previous Clarion interview.
Besides a full stomach, Prins said it is a unique setting to build relationships with the students, which is essential for his position. It eases the interchange between himself and the kids, and means they are more likely to rely on him for information if put in a tough position, he said.
Kenai Alternative is unique because educators and administration address and play to the student’s strengths, Prins said.
Attending the school has made all the difference to Senior Joel Stockton. When he was attending Kenai Central High School last year he was having trouble passing classes and getting along with classmates. Now he said he is in a supportive environment that is contributing to success in school.
Stockton said he has his breakfast at the school every day. Things would be noticeably different if the 25-30 volunteers from Soldotna United Methodist Church, Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church and the River Covenant Church didn’t show up five days a week.
Tardiness would be more of an issue because the food is an incentive to show up on time, and Stockton and his classmates would be more sluggish and learn less easily more often.
Smalley said “it is biblical — feeding the hungry,” which has driven her and her husband Hal Smalley to the school every Wednesday for nearly 20 years.
Volunteer Nancy Cranston, who has been cooking every week for nearly 9 years, said only bad weather keeps her away.
John Benner who comes with wife Dee Benner, said the volunteers get more out of it than the students. Being there is “kind of automatic,” he said.
And, he said with a laugh, “We don’t sleep well anyway.”
It is a very well organized group, Reese said. They gather donations from businesses and individuals in the community, including Arby’s and the Kenai Lions Club every year to pay for the ingredients. They cook, clean and help find funding to continue the service, he said.
It contributes to a “stable, welcoming environment,” Reese said. Kids are “greeted with a warm smile and hot meal,” everyday, he said.