Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

By Chris Collins

Nestled on a couch in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church on the Thursday morning before spring break, Chandler Blatz, Jason Buchanan and Destin Lahey were plowing through a breakfast of sausage and eggs before class.

It's the food, the friends and the fun that keeps them coming back each school day to the Presbyterian Church's Open Door program, they said.

"You get a nice warm meal and a fun place to be," says Chandler.

His pal, Jason, says the church basement filled with friendly adults is a good place for the middle schoolers to wait for the building just across the street to open its doors before class starts in the mornings.

"It's cool for people whose parents have to go to work really early," he says.

And when they are finished eating, Chandler and Jason and Destin Lahey, along with the 30 to 40 other students who come for a meal, find other ways to occupy their time before the school day begins.

"If you get bored after you eat, there's fun games to play," Destin says.

The three all are 13-year-old seventh-graders at Baker Middle School.

They've been coming to the Open Doorsince it opened this year. The program, which is in its third year, has grown from providing a light breakfast for a handful of students to a full-fledged morning party, not only for the students, but for the adults who volunteer as well.

"It's big fun coming here," says Jordan Zemmer, 14, an eighth-grader. "You get a wholesome breakfast, play fun games and prepare for another good day."

Larry Cassidy took over coordination of the program last year. It was started by Liz Romtvedt, the church's former youth and missions coordinator. She also started the Backpack program, which provides weekend food for children throughout the community (see story at left). Lynn Roehm is the coordinator of that program.

The two men have recruited volunteers from throughout the community.

Milo Pope joins the Open Door program each Thursday. He comes in at about 6 o'clock to see what needs to be done. As an early riser, he's usually the first to arrive.

He unloads the dishwasher, starts the potatoes cooking and sets up the warming trays for the day's meal - everything except cracking the eggs. (He doesn't like to get egg on his hands, he explains.)

"I have a lot of fun doing this," he says as he pulls a sheet of tater tots from the oven for the waiting students.

Dave Davis, who owns Davis Computers and an Internet service, agrees that the volunteer effort is an enjoyable and worthwhile project.

"I feel like I'm part of something here - something special," he says. "There are a lot of good people here."

Neither of the two men attend the Presbyterian Church, they just wanted to help feed the kids.

Other Thursday volunteers include Linda Collins, Shannon Moon, Julie Garchar and Tom and Jodi Averett.

Luke Rembold, the Presbyterian youth director, participates in the Open Door program along with his counterparts at the Nazarene Church and Baker City Christian Church, Zach Ellis and Jase Madsen, respectively.

Ellis joined the students on the Thursday before spring break.

The Open Door is a great way for the churches to get to know these young people, Ellis said.

"I wouldn't know 85 percent of these guys if I didn't come here," he said, adding that the three youth directors work together to keep track of the young people, most of whom do not have a church home.

Bob Moon is the Presbyterian Church's missions director. He's eager to spread the word about the good work being done by his fellow church members and other volunteers. And he's hoping the Open Door program and the Backpack program will garner more support from other churches and community residents.

Connie Sunblad, a paraprofessional teaching assistant at Baker Middle School, joins the other adults at the church Monday through Thursday as part of her job.

And her presence has made a big difference in how the students get along each morning, Cassidy says.

"People are behaving 100 percent better than when she wasn't here," he said.

And Sunblad's boss, Mindi Vaughn, Baker Middle School principal, has nothing but good to say about the program and the volunteers.

"The staff at Baker Middle School tips their hats to these church volunteers and the Open Door (Program). Thank you for seeing a need and stepping up to assure that our kids are fed, warm, safe, heard and connect with adult mentors," she wrote in a letter endorsing the program.

The cost of running the two programs, which have received generous grant support, totals about $31,000, Moon says. Cassidy and Roehm and their helpers work hard to find the best buy on food items, including working with the Oregon Food Bank to "get a bigger bang for our bucks," he added.

"We've been fortunate to have quite a bit financed by grants, but that's not going to last to infinity.

"Our focus for the last year and a half was to try to get the program flowing operationally," he said. "Now, we're putting a renewed effort into outreach to the community."

In addition to those who volunteer their time, the programs need financial assistance from others.

For their part, members of the First Presbyterian church, through tithing and donations, contribute nearly a third of the cost of the Open Door program and a fourth of the cost of the Backpack program, Moon says.

For more information or to donate to the Open Door program, call Cassidy at 541-519-2530.