For Elgin Jones, running Kids' Kitchen for more than 17 years has been a labor of love
ANCHORAGE – Elgin Jones, 73, is legally blind. He developed glaucoma a few years ago and his vision has been fading steadily since.
Faces and places have become fuzzy blurs, he said, but he can sense your presence in a room and can recognize your voice in a flash.
Jones has one vision, however, that’s clear. Eradicate child hunger.
His vision spawned from a dream in September 1996 when he said the Lord told him it would be his duty to make sure Anchorage kids didn’t go hungry.
Almost two million meals later, he said, it’s a responsibility he hasn’t taken lightly.
“They’ve given me a new lease on life,” Jones said of the kids. “I feel as though I have so many thousands of children. It’s awesome to deal with children. I can’t age because of that.”
Armed with his vision and a hodgepodge of helping hands, Jones has run Kids’ Kitchen in Anchorage for more than 17 years.
The location has changed over the years and so has his crew. The kids he’s helped have grown up and moved on.
“Some are college graduates, some are dead,” he said with a furrowed brow. “They’ve changed, they’ve grown. I have little kids now and they’ll be grown soon.”
These days, Jones works out of the Fairview Recreation Center weekday afternoons. He has a couple cooks to prepare the meals and people from the community help out when they can.
Anywhere from 40 to 60 kids usually attend, said cook Rodney Coffin, and the number increases toward the end of the month when parents’ paychecks start to dwindle.
On a Friday in mid-January, dozens of kids show up right on time, ready for a warm meal. The aroma of chicken teriyaki over rice hangs in the air as kids pile in, their shoes squeaking the floor.
People at the Fairview Recreation Center used words like “selfless,” “kind” and “fatherly” to describe Jones.
One of those people is Damien Francis, who said he has the utmost respect for Jones. The 31-year-old helps Jones with networking and social media, but knows the kids by name and stops to chat with them as they filter in.
Deatrice Swazer isn’t far behind Francis. Her son is 27 now, but he started coming to Kids’ Kitchen when he was 8.
“I don’t just see the kids,” she said, scanning the room. “I see my son.”
In 2014, Jones has his eyes on Tucson, Ariz., as the next destination to feed the children.
He’ll still tend to Anchorage’s youth and spend a large chunk of time in Alaska, he said, but doesn’t know of anything like Kids’ Kitchen in the desert city. And as a senior citizen, he’s craving sunshine, he said.
Before living in Anchorage, Jones lived in Tucson for 10 years. There he has already established contacts to talk about his vision. It’s also the place he began his social service ministry, he said. In the ‘80s, he used to pass out fruit and job applications in front of City Hall. He called it “Fruit for the Hungry.”
Back in Anchorage, there’s still a need for services like Kids’ Kitchen. According to the Anchorage School District, nearly 41 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals, eligibility for which is based on household size, income level and Permanent Fund Dividend information.
In a 2010 report by the Food Bank of Alaska, about 77,200 people received emergency food from the food bank, with about 15,300 different people a week. In addition, 40 percent of household members served by the nonprofit were 18 years old or younger.
It’s statistics like this that Jones said keeps him going, but this line of work hasn’t always been easy. He relies primarily on donations “that way we’re not caught up in bureaucracy,” he said, which means money is sometimes tight.
But in 17 years, there’s always been food and he’s never had to turn the kids away.
“One time I was coming downtown … and there was no food, no money,” he said. “And I got a phone call that someone was gonna bring by some chili.”
Things tend to happen the way they’re supposed to, Jones said.
He has the people of Anchorage to thank for Kids’ Kitchen’s success, he said.
On that Friday in mid-January, a fourth grade teacher from Williwaw Elementary brought a $92 donation raised by her class and a group of kids from the Hillside offered their help serving food.
Jones, who said the kids give him a reason to wake up every morning, appreciates the outpouring of support.
And the kids seem to appreciate what Jones does.
“I like being here,” said 13-year-old Desmond David-Pitts, who has been coming to Kids’ Kitchen since he was a toddler. “It’s like a second home.”