On any given summer day dozens of neighborhood children gather at St. Anthony Church in Anchorage for lunch and playtime on the parish’s expansive green lawn and parking lot. Games and free play often follow a hastily eaten meal, sometimes organized by teens from the south Mountain View parish and other youth volunteers.
Beginning its fourth year of operation, the lunch program started when parishioners sought to engage neighborhood children who lacked structured or supervised activities during the long summer days.
Several years ago the parish partnered with the Anchorage Department of Parks and Recreation to provide an organized summer play program within the parish hall and grounds. When the Parks department budget was cut, the program ended, but the need continued. Lacking any alternatives to engage neighborhood kids, the parish became a lunch distribution site, one of approximately two dozen throughout Anchorage.
Initially Food Bank of Alaska helped launch the summer lunch program by providing hot meals for children under 18 and pregnant women. On some days there were as many as 70 kids and adults served, with a daily average of 50 continuing for the past three years.
The Children’s Lunch Box, a program of Bean’s Café, now provides children’s cold lunches which are served at noon every weekday, from the end of one school year to the beginning of the next. The season begins and ends with a big neighborhood barbeque hosted by the Knights of Columbus. The event draws kids, parents, parishioners and surrounding neighbors together.
The tasks of feeding more than 50 kids a day is taken on by parish volunteers.
Paul and Joyce Lightner are prominent volunteers who oversee much of the day-to-day operations.
“I love the kids,” Joyce told the Catholic Anchor. “I miss not being by my grandchildren or great-grandchildren. It fills a void.”
The Lightners are parents to eight children — none of whom live in Alaska — and were present every day last summer to perform necessary tasks required to distribute the packaged lunches.
Fellow volunteer Francine Bolewicz sees the mission of the summer lunch program as far more than filling little hungry bellies.
“The kids need a smiling face and someone who cares whether they eat or not,” Bolewicz said. “We want to build relationships with them. I have helped some kids learn to be more respectful by showing them respect, to instill good values where they might be a little weak.”
With the start of the next summer season fast approaching, volunteers expressed a desire to enlist more support from the parish and perhaps other churches as well.
“We need people to help set-up tables and bring out chairs,” Joyce said. “We especially need young people.”
St. Anthony pastor Father Fred Bugarin noted Jesus’ words that one does not live by bread alone. Viewing the program as an opportunity for parishioners to engage their neighbors about issues of mutual concern, Father Bugarin is often present during the lunch hour doing just that. Ultimately, he is hopeful that the program will empower those receiving service to ultimately serve others.
For more information or to volunteer, contact St. Anthony Church at 333-5544.