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Chestatee Elementary Schools staff serves meal for students in need

NORTHEAST FORSYTH — Educators at a north Forsyth school know the meaning of Thanksgiving is centered on family and community. And a special meal.

Chestatee Elementary has been hosting a holiday meal for its students and their families for at least four years, and the gathering continues to grow every year, said Craig Ahrens, a fifth-grade teacher and the event’s organizer.

They usually feed between 80 and 100 people, Ahrens said. Tuesday’s meal was open to anyone, but the focus was on welcoming families who are in the most need.

“They know we’re not just a school,” he said. “They just need an hour or two to connect with each other about life, and say let’s not think about it. Let’s just eat. It lifts that burden from them.”

Sometimes, he said, the dinner in the cafeteria of the school off Keith Bridge Road (Hwy. 306) is a family’s only Thanksgiving meal.

Teachers and their spouses brought in home-cooked dishes to serve.

They were added to the turkeys Ahrens and a group of Chestatee educators spent all day cooking.

“This is their free time. They don’t have to do this,” he said. “Nobody questioned it.”

Chestatee is a Title-I school, which means it gets additional funding to help a student population that has a larger percentage of kids on the free/reduced meal program.

“It’s just taking care of the community, and it’s a sweet tradition,” said Principal Polly Tennies of the event. “People know that the school cares about the families.”

Chestatee became one of the first in Forsyth County to be designated a family-friendly school by the state Department of Education, which is a program that recognizes Title-I schools that engage parents and the community.

“For any child to thrive, you really have to have that home-school connection,” Tennies said.

Debra Warnecke, Amy Tricke and Megan Kelley all teach first grade at Chestatee. On their week off, they stood together and served hot food to students and families.

“Seeing them outside of school really makes a difference,” Tricke said.

According to Kelley, the families have to have a good connection to the people within their students’ school to feel welcome.

“My favorite part is cooking and bringing something I made at home in to share with them,” added Warnecke, who made salad dressing from scratch for the first time. “So they know what I enjoy from home.”