When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, much-loved community meals stopped being held in this small community, along with public gatherings.
Community members worried about some of their neighbors, particularly elders, who often depended upon these community meals.
And so, a group of volunteers decided to cook soup every Sunday for those in need. The program, now in its seventh week, has been a huge success.
“We call it Soup for the Soul,” said Kat McElroy, one of the volunteers. “We do drive-by souping.”
Anyone wishing a home cooked meal can either pick up the food themselves or await in-person delivery by other volunteers. So far, volunteers are feeding an average of 60 people every week.
The Nenana Native Council donates use of the kitchen in the tribal hall and every week, most of the food has been donated.
Someone makes soup. There is usually bread and a dessert as well.
“People have been making desserts, cookies, cupcakes,” McElroy said. “We’ve got meals scheduled for the next six weeks.”
“It started out primarily for elders,” she added. “But now we’re feeding families. Some single people, young people, old people, everyone is welcome. There’s no criteria.”
Volunteers follow strict safety protocol, she said. They wear masks and gloves and maintain social distancing.
As news of the program has spread, more and more people are volunteering.
“Some guy showed up at my house with a haunch of moose,” McElroy said. “He said, here, donate this to the soup program.”
McElroy processed that moose meat into stew and put it in 10 pound packages in the freezer.
“Now we can have moose stew once a month through January,” she added.
The latest Sunday menu included chicken and rice soup.
“The chickens grew in my back yard and the celery hearts and onions came out of my garden,” McElroy said.
Other volunteers brought in homemade cookies and homemade banana bread. There was also sourdough bread with homemade pesto.
“All delivered to your door, for free,” McElroy said.
Delivering is really fun, and a chance to say hello to neighbors, according to volunteer Marilyn Duggar.
People are very generous, she said.
“Karen Harvey makes 60 little muffins, usually accompanied with homemade jam or honey in a little cup. Kathy Johnson makes cookies every Sunday to put into the bags.”
Someone who bagged their first moose donated a portion of it to the program, according to volunteer Kat Reeves.
People who are donating are not rich, Duggar said.
“These are people that just have and can give,” she said. “That’s the coolest part.”
And cooking the food has become a welcome social opportunity as well, with all safety measures in place.
“You can finally sit down and visit with people in a big room, where it is safe,” Duggar said.
“We love cooking for each other. We love seeing each other,” McElory said. “Stuff like that sews a community together. To sit down, talk together, eat together.”
It helps contribute to Nenana’s strong sense of community, she said.
“Today, we probably had eight people wander in and sit and eat with us — all 6 feet apart,” she added.
Mayor Josh Verhagan and his family volunteered the past couple weeks.
“I think Josh Verhagan said it really good,” said Marilyn Duggar. “Service changes people.”
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris.