Sometimes children come to school hungry. The reasons are complex, but the effects are simple: children cannot learn well on empty stomachs.
Churches in Nikiski got together with educators at Nikiski Elementary School to make sure children there don't face that obstacle. Now, every morning, children can sit down in the gym for a basic, nutritious breakfast before the first bell.
The food is provided and served by volunteers organized by area churches. The volunteers even take care of setting up the tables and cleaning up afterward. The program does not cost the families or the school a penny.
John Henry, the pastor at North Star United Methodist Church, joined the school's site-based council. He was dismayed to hear teachers talk of children's hunger interfering with classes.
"It really bothered me," he said.
Henry prayed about the problem, then spoke to his congregation. He told them he had a dream about feeding the children. He also took the idea to a regular meeting of Nikiski ministers and got other churches involved.
Sharon Brower and Sarah Plagge, both of North Star United Methodist Church, make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Nikiski Elementary School students Monday. It's part of a four-church program to serve the children breakfast five days a week.
The ministers began planning the project during the Christmas season last year, and in March they served the first meals. They began serving breakfast three days a week, but soon went to every day because it proved so popular. This year, they plan to serve breakfast every day school is in session and are discussing the possibility of expanding the program to other schools.
"Now it has a life of its own," Henry said.
"We are feeding roughly a third of the student body (at Nikiski Elementary)."
Monday, the site-based council at North Star Elementary decided to start the breakfast program at its school, as well.
Nikiski Elementary Principal Mark Norgren had high praise for the breakfast program and the volunteer support.
"The need was demonstrated right away," he said.
"Teachers absolutely love it."
Parents and children are enthusiastic, too. Usually 50 to 70 students eat their first meal at school, but some-
times as many as 100 sit down for breakfast.
Children at the breakfast last week said they liked the convenience. They can sleep in a bit, wake up more before eating and reduce the hassle of trying to get everything done in time to get out the door in the morning. Breakfast at school makes life easier for their moms, they said.
Norgren noted that the participation is strictly voluntary.
"Nobody is twisting their arms to participate. They have a
choice of this or the playground," he said.
Norgren stressed that the church volunteers do all the work. All the school has done is made space available, even setting aside an area in one of the boys' lavatories to serve as a special office and pantry for the project.
In addition to the church involvement, the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank and the Kenai Penin-sula Borough School District's Student Nutrition Services help the program get food at subsidized rates. For example, a large, four-pound jar of peanut butter costs the group 54 cents, Norgren said.
The school breakfast program is one of several projects undertaken cooperatively by Christian churches in Nikiski. They have banded together to reach out beyond their congregations and offer social support services to the community.
Rufus Tallent, pastor of the Aurora Heights Assembly of God, said a related project that has taken off is "Tool Time," a weekly get together Wednesday evenings for elementary age children and their families that features dinner and entertainment.
"Our highest attendance was 194," he said.
The churches also run a clothes closet, a food pantry, a "handyman ministry" and coordinate holiday food baskets.
This year, they completed the incorporation of an independent nonprofit called Nikiski Com-munity Services. They plan to pool resources to build a centralized facility to house community services.
"We call it the Church of Nikiski," Tallent said.
Now the ministers are organizing volunteers to come in after school, as well, to provide academic tutoring. Denver Copeland, pastor of the North Kenai Baptist Church, has several retired educators lined up. Norgren is looking forward to the new project, due to start next week.
He described the three pastors who work on the breakfast program as "action people."
"It is moving into an academic support area as well. That is really exciting," he said.
"You can see how they are pulling together for the common interest of the community. ...
"Those people have demonstrated to me that they have a genuine care for our kids. That's a principal's dream, to walk into a community like that."
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