Grace Merkes received a First Lady's Volunteer Award for her efforts to help the Sterling Head Start program. Her grandson, Matthew Daugherty, is airborne behind her.
Photo by M. Scott Moon/Peninsula
When Grace Merkes' name is spoken out loud, some think of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member, eight people think of their mom, 27 think of their grandmother, and a whole lot of people think of the long-time Sterling resident who puts in hours and hours volunteering to help the community.
"To me, my greatest accomplishment is Head Start," said Merkes, one of two Kenai Peninsula women recently honored as a First Lady's Volunteer Award winner.
Merkes was instrumental in securing a grant to get the Sterling Head Start program started.
"I felt we really needed a Head Start program for low-income kids in Sterling," she said.
The program, housed in a building between Cook's Corner Tesoro gas station and the Moose River RV Park and Cafe, which is owned by son Dennis Merkes, helps children ages 3 to 5 get ready to enter grade school.
"I used to work at (Division of Family and Youth Services) and I saw a lot of kids who needed help at the younger ages," she said.
"Head Start also helps parents. It's a family program. That's what I really like," Merkes said.
While Head Start is for children from low-income families, the Sterling program has space for 38 children. And when space is available, children from families whose income exceeds the guideline can be enrolled.
"I just did it because I knew there was a need," said Merkes.
"My goal was to just have better kids coming into school ... to have the kids be better prepared."
In addition to her work with Head Start, Merkes also was cited by first lady Nancy Murkowski for her volunteer work with the Sterling community and with the Sterling Community Club.
One project Merkes is working on now is grant writing to obtain funding for a Sterling Community Club building, which will replace the log cabin building at Swanson River Road and the Sterling Highway the club currently meets in.
She said the log cabin, originally Sterling's one-room school, would be relocated and used as a community museum.
The new building would house a library, gym, large kitchen and expanded space for the Head Start program.
That is not the extent of Merkes' volunteerism.
She also is vice-chair of the Alaska Human Rights Commission, she's on the board of directors of Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council and co-chair of gymnastics for the Arctic Winter Games.
Merkes also volunteers with daughter, Vonnie Pierce, to produce the Red Cross fund-raiser golf tournament each year, and she recently helped put on the dinner-auction and variety show fund-raiser for Head Start.
During the Sterling Community Club's annual winter and summer Fun Days celebrations, Merkes can be found cooking hot dogs or collecting donations for the events' auctions.
Additionally, she is a volunteer at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic church in Soldotna, working with its St. Vincent de Paul Society, which cares for the needy.
Merkes has been on the borough assembly since 1991 and has served on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission and the former Ridgeway-Sterling Fire Service Area board.
Two years ago, she volunteered to help plan Gov. Frank Murkowski's Kenai Peninsula inauguration party in Soldotna.
She and her husband, Leon, have eight children: Patty Wisel, Vonnie Pierce, Dennis Merkes, Renee Lindow, Kenny Merkes, Linda Linkler, Greg Merkes and Melissa Daugherty. They have 27 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Married for 47 years, they moved to Alaska from Wisconsin in 1960, first settling in Anchorage before deciding to homestead in Sterling.
When asked why she does as much volunteer work as she does, Merkes said, "I like doing it. I like seeing stuff accomplished for the community.
"I worked most of my life and now I'm retired," she said.
"I enjoy doing things that are beneficial for the community."
She said she likes keeping active and plans to continue volunteering "forever."
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