Breakfast is served daily at Port’s Lincoln Elementary School, thanks to volunteers who for the past decade have been giving kids a healthy start to their day
Patti Lemkuil insists it’s not a big deal.
But Lincoln Elementary School Principal Jane Gennerman knows it is. Feeding up to 20% of Lincoln’s students breakfast for 10 years running makes for a better learning environment.
“One of the things we really have recognized is it sets kids up for success right at the beginning of the day,” Gennerman said.
Lemkuil started the school’s breakfast club a decade ago as a member of the Parent Association for Lincoln School.
“I said I’d research it and go from there,” she said.
She kept going. In 2005, Lemkuil, a Lincoln alum herself, had two children at the school. Now, she doesn’t have any at the school, but she keeps running the program entirely on volunteers and private donations.
“I feel like it’s part of what I do during the week,” she said. “It’s not difficult work at all.”
Lemkuil organizes a group of 10 volunteers, many retired. The same two come on the same day each week and make a lasting impact on students in just minutes per day.
“These ladies are wonderful, and they’re so pleasant,” Gennerman said. “These kids just get so attached to them. They learn their jokes. They talk to them. It’s a special thing.”
A decade into the program, Lemkuil said she has figured out the most efficient system and menu. Time is of the essence as serving is generally done from 8 to 8:15 a.m.
“It’s like a fine-oiled machine,” she said.
“They know exactly what to do and how to do it,” Gennerman said.
Students receive toast with butter and cinnamon or sugar and cold cereal — usually something low in sugar such as Cheerios, Rice Krispies or Chex. The only beverage option is milk.
Lemkuil said the fewer choices the better at this age. Latecomers receive a granola bar, animal crackers and a juice box.
Past experiments in serving fruit became difficult since it’s perishable; waffles became difficult with syrup, Lemkuil said.
“For the first couple of years, it was really an experiment,” she said. “We needed something that was quick. Sometimes, the bus doesn’t get there until 10 after 8 and kids needed to be in class at 8:25.
“We’re really doing our best to get at least a little food in them.”
Serving dishes and cutlery became another learning experience. Paper products and plasticware turned into plastic cups and regular silverware due to expense and waste. Volunteers stay do to dishes every day, and they are done by 8:45 a.m., Lemkuil said.
Each Friday, Lemkuil takes inventory and shops so the program is stocked and ready to go on Monday. She said custodian Steve Schmidt is helpful in storing food and supplies, including decorations volunteers use to create a festive atmosphere for holidays.
Of the school’s 350 students, about 40 per day participate in the breakfast club and 64 total as not everyone attends every day, Lemkuil said.
“We consider them (club) members and they think that’s special,” she said.
Some students may have gotten up late; others may not be hungry until they get to school; some may not have breakfast at home. Why students are there is irrelevant.
“There’s absolutely no discrimination, and we don’t want to know why they’re there,” Lemkuil said. “Anybody’s welcome. There’s no criteria needed.”
“We’re just providing for a need. It’s open to whoever needs it for that particular day,” Gennerman said.
The program doesn’t cost taxpayers a cent. An anonymous donor has funded the program for the past two years, Lemkuil said. Beyond that, PALS will collect money on movie nights, and a jar for donations sits in the office. Though they are close by, school personnel don’t staff the breakfasts.
Volunteers do more than serve breakfast, Gennerman said. They can tell if a student is having a problem and then alert school personnel who can address the issue before school even starts. For example, volunteers could tell one student had a bad evening the day before, and school personnel intervened to support the child.
“Here’s this volunteer and they’ve gotten to know this kid so well,” she said.
Lemkuil said she and the volunteers love the interaction with the children. One boy “destined to be a farmer” often shares stories about working on a John Deere tractor.
“It’s so fun getting to know the kids. They really are sweet and kind, and it’s interesting to see them interact with each other,” she said. “They definitely want to share what’s going on in their life at the moment.”
Three others have volunteered with Lemkuil from the start: her mom Carol Nordengren, sister Holly Ostermann and Barb Bichler.
“Not only is it a program for kids to have breakfast, but I also find it to be a social gathering for them,” Ostermann said. “They have to eat all that is given them, they have to mind their manners, but we also have a great time. Kids love telling us what they are doing in school and outside of school.”
Nordengren had been volunteering at Lincoln to help children read, and her daughter added to her experience.
“Patti said she needed volunteers and asked, ‘What day do you want to work?’” she said.
But it’s not work. Nordengren said she has fun working with the children.
“I love seeing the kids. Each one is an individual,” she said. “They come up to you and hug you.”
Even students want to volunteer.
“They always want to help. ‘Can I pass the toast?’” Nordengren said.
This year’s volunteers include Bichler and Betty Lanser on Monday, Meg Adams and Janet Scharnweber on Tuesday, Jennifer and Sherrie Dimmer on Wednesday, Ostermann and Leslie Lanser on Thursday, and Nordengren and Lemkuil on Friday.
“To me it’s hard to even find words to describe what a great community this is and how people care about kids. They want to see kids succeed,” Gennerman said.
“Even though they may not have kids in the school anymore, they’re so dedicated to starting their day off right.”
Port Washington’s Lincoln Elementary School breakfast club program turned 10 years old this year. Helping serve (from left) are Holly Ostermann, student helper Addie Dahl, program founder and Ostermann’s sister Patti Lemkuil, and Ostermann and Lemkuil’s mother Carol Nordengren. The program is 100% funded by donors and uses volunteer manpower. Photo by Sam Arendt