Deanne Burgen paces the rows of tables, tapping her fingers together and singing along absently to the music playing in Roosevelt High's gym. She's not happy.
She's not happy because there are eight tables in each row, not seven, which is throwing off her precise placement of decorations. The napkins — yellow, green, red and orange — aren't in a pattern. The plates aren't, either. The candles need to be just so. Each table should be unique, the attention evident.
The obsession with detail seems fanatical, especially for hungry high schoolers. Burgen doesn't even work here anymore. She left her job as the campus security supervisor in September to work at the county jail.
But details matter. It's Sunday, Nov. 24 — just four days until Thanksgiving. Many of the kids at this Casper school won't have a meal like this come the holiday. That's why Burgen and the rest of the Roosevelt staff are gathered to peel potatoes, cook 30 pies, pour chicken broth over two huge dishes of stuffing and demand all the candles be collected because they aren't just so.
"I would say the majority of our kids have had no stability in their life," Burgen says, surveying the gym again. Last year, she used a ruler to measure the distance between chairs. "So when you're going to do something special, I want to think of every detail."
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It's a day until the feast. Two students whose mothers also went to Roosevelt will sit at the long table Burgen is currently glaring at. They'll say they'll miss this when they graduate. Greta Hinderliter, the school district's homeless coordinator, will come with her therapy dog, Finnegan. She has a lot of students here.
"We want to give them hope that there's something better than what they've already lived," says Susan Thompson, Roosevelt's music teacher. "And that there's another world out there."
Thompson is arranging the centerpieces for the tables, Mason jars weighted by popcorn kernels. Stalks of wheat, blue and yellow flowers, wooden pine cones and acorns jut out from the jars. Thompson eyes the jars critically, declaring that one needs "something serious" and another requires one more flower.
This feast first started in a special education classroom in the old school, in North Casper. Back in those days, four years and ancient history ago, special ed teacher Fred Martinez was big on food: He'd whip up salsa and cook Mexican dishes in a big wok on the porch of a trailer that doubled as a classroom.
Naturally, the whole school wanted in. Teachers would roast the turkeys at home. ("We did a lot of stuff illegally," Martinez says.) In the new building, the cooking is above board.
This will be the 10th feast. Students will file in, take their plates and walk through the line. The school chef's three grandkids will dish out rolls and mashed potatoes. The students will say thank you, eye the sweet potatoes suspiciously and pick light or dark turkey. The gym will swell with chatter.
After they eat, they will break down Burgen's carefully crafted dining room. They'll pile candles, crumple tablecloths, stack chairs and tables against the wall. The silverware will be collected in a big bin for Martinez to wash. Leftovers will be stored away for later. The students will head back to class, a little quieter, their stomachs full.