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Shepherd of the Valley Summer Lunch Program: Sharing Meals, Breaking Barriers

By Geoff Kirsch

For Tari Stage-Harvey, pastor at Shepherd of the Valley Church in the Mendenhall Valley, the mission is clear.

“We want to make sure every kid in Juneau who’s hungry, eats. Period.”

To that end, Shepherd of the Valley heads into the fourth year of its highly successful and steadily growing drop-in Summer Lunch Program, supported by a Community Impact Grant from the United Way of Southeast Alaska, which provides free lunch and activities during summer break to neighborhood you—“those who benefit from free lunch during the school year and those who benefit from being around other youth and away from electronics during the summer.”

The ten-week program, which begins this year on June 8, feeds not only elementary, middle, and high school stomachs, but also minds. For from noon to 1:30 pm each weekday, Shepherd of the Valley’s Summer Lunch Program provides a rotating menu of healthy meals—“protein-heavy, lots of veggies”—as well as one organized activity.

“We do gardening, cooking, science—it’s chaos, but it’s a blast,” Stage-Harvey says. “We also have a reading room, where we pair up younger kids with older kids to just sit and read. They really seem to love it.”

During the Summer Lunch Program’s 2012 inaugural year, Stage-Harvey estimates she’d see anywhere between three and 20 children on any given morning, varying widely. This year, she expects 45 a day, every day.

Part of the reason for this increase owes to Shepherd of the Valley’s approach, which emphasizes looking for obstacles and finding practical ways to overcome them.

“One obstacle, of course, is that some people are suspicious of anything having to do with a church,” Stage-Harvey says. “But with our Summer Lunch Program, there’s no proselytizing, no hidden agenda; we just want to help.”

To ease trepidation, and also raise community awareness for the program in general, Shepherd of the Valley kicks things off with a “bike rodeo” from 4-6 pm the Sunday afternoon before the Summer Lunch Program begins. This year, the bike rodeo takes place June 7, in the Shepherd of the Valley parking lot (a nice big flat place to ride a bike, by the way).  

Another obstacle relates to transportation—how do you safely, effectively and inexpensively get 45 children to and from a lunch program?

Shepherd of the Valley’s answer: “bike chaperones,” a team of trained middle and high school volunteers who accompany younger kids to the Summer Lunch Program and back home again.

“We get a lot of bike chaperones who come to help, but sometimes it’s obvious they’re hungry, too,” says Stage-Harvey of the serendipitous secondary benefit. “Volunteering takes away some of the stigma of asking for help.”

Of course, the Summer Lunch Program represents only one portion of Shepherd of the Valley’s larger work toward ending hunger in the local community, a problem Stage-Harvey believes is more serious than people may think.

“One of the gifts of living in Juneau: our neighborhoods are economically diverse. However, that disqualifies us for certain federal food programs,” she says. “Right now, we’ve got about half the emergency rations we need. And that’s before whatever state and city budget cuts are coming.”

To that end, not only does Shepherd of the Valley maintain its own independent food pantry; it also meets each month with United Way and the other food agencies in town to identify “food gaps” and then coordinate an efficient response to those gaps.

“We bring folks to the table, so to speak,” she says of this united effort to ensure the whole city is fed, every meal, every day. “That’s a gift of having limited resources: you learn to work together.”

To Stage-Harvey the largest gaps remain summer—“food pantries are slammed June through August”—weekends and breakfast.

“We don’t have everyone covered, not yet,” she says with characteristic optimism. “But we’re working on it.”

Shepherd of the Valley’s Summer Lunch Program exemplifies the kind of teamwork it takes to end community hunger. Staffed by 12-14 volunteers a day—“a lot of teachers, actually, and quite a few retirees”—it also employs two paid positions: a kitchen and cleanup organizer/overseer and a recreation specialist, both of whom Stage-Harvey characterize as integral to the program’s success.

“In addition to the cost of the food, itself, being able to hire paid staff creates a more sustainable program,” she says, crediting the Community Impact Grant’s support in these areas.

“Partnering with the United Way also raises the program’s profile, and that really increases the likelihood of wider community involvement.

Interested potential volunteers for the Summer Lunch Program can email Shepherd of the Valley at sov@alaska.net or stop by the bike rodeo. Note: all volunteers must first pass a background check.

“When we share a meal together, we share more than just food,” Stage-Harvey says of a concept she terms “meal fellowship.” “We share company. We share stories. We break down our barriers. We relate to each other.”

To learn more about United Way and its partner agencies, visit www.unitedwayseak.org.