On a weekday afternoon, families gather at Marina Park, spread out blankets and have picnics overlooking the water. It's a peaceful scene made possible by Umatilla School District employees and volunteers who spend their summers delivering free meals to children and families.

Some, such as nutrition assistant Tami Watson, return annually.

"I feed the kids at the marina every year, and I love it," Watson said Tuesday. "I love the kids and the families that come down. They bring their blankets and they eat and swim. It's great."

Others, including teacher Lena Morales, are marking their first year working with the program.

"I'll be teaching in Hermiston next year, so I wanted to work through the summer to stay involved with this community," she said. "This is something that's just a lot of fun to do."

At the marina, Morales and Watson serve about 60 people every day. Across town at Clara Brownell Middle School, former student teacher April Linnell said she sees about 60 children and 10-15 adults a day.

"The numbers keep climbing," she said. "I love it. I think it's a great opportunity for kids to get a good meal during the summer. We see a lot of the same kids every day."

Linnell just graduated college and is looking for a teaching job. She applied to work during the summer program and brings her daughter, Kaitlynn, 14, along. Kaitlynn is the only volunteer to attend the program every day, but the Irrigon High School freshman said she enjoys the work.

"It's fun, and I get to help out," she said Tuesday. "I like it. It gives me something to do so I'm not bored all summer, and I get to learn to talk to people. I'm normally really quiet."

For Kaitlynn, the program wasn't exactly what she expected.

"I thought there would be less people," she said. "Sometimes it's hard making sure everyone gets what they need."

For the Linnells, keeping up with the demand and making sure they have enough food on hand is a challenge. Outside at the marina, the hardest part of the job is keeping the hot meals warm and the cold items cold.

"Keeping them cold as it gets hotter is challenging," Watson said.

No matter which of the three sites the workers served food, they all agreed one one thing: the need.

"There's definitely a need," Linnell said. "I think more places need to have a program like this, especially the small communities."

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