Kathy Ellenberger: Cafeteria staff member, Marion-Walker Elementary School
If you ever have the chance to meet Kathy Ellenberger, she might joke around and tell you she grew up in a two-story igloo and rode a dogsled to school. After all, the cafeteria staff member at Marion-Walker Elementary School is from a small city in Alaska about 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where that’s a common misconception.
Ellenberger brings that sense of humor to her job each day, working with a group of people who she says “has a lot of fun and have great camaraderie.” And some of her favorite parts of the day, while working the cash register and preparing food, is running into the kindergarten through fifth-grade students, giving them nicknames, encouraging them to take their fruits and veggies, and recognizing students on their birthdays.
Despite growing up in the remote Alaskan town of Barrow -- now known by its Inupiaq native name of Utqiagvik -- that has no paved roads because of the permafrost and only way in and out was by airplane, Ellenberger said she considers herself "more of a city girl," and says Bellefonte winters feel colder to her than the tundra she grew up in that had regular average winter temperatures of less than 20 degrees below zero, according to statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Minus 12 in a T-shirt? No problem,” she said with a laugh. “But 30 degrees here and I’m dying down to the bone, because of the humidity. It’s all blizzards in winter with snow drifts as high as houses, but it’s dry, so the cold is manageable.”
After graduating from Barrow High School, she hopped on a plane out of Barrow so she could attend Penn State and study communication and media. It was one of three colleges she applied to with others, including Johnson and Wales and Northeastern universities. She’s lived with her husband John and two kids, Logan and Mackenzie, in the Bellefonte area since 2005 and worked for Bellefonte Area School District since the spring of 2017.
“I always say it offered me a lot of opportunities,” Ellenberger said about growing up in Barrow. “Even though it was secluded and everyone knew everybody’s business, I still had a lot of opportunities.”
She traveled to Austria at the age of 16 with the Rotary’s exchange program and attended language camps in the years before her international travel experience. By the time she was in high school, she accumulated more air miles than many adults do in a lifetime.
First interested in becoming a police officer, Ellenberger received a grant from the Department of Justice to work at the police station back in her hometown working with law enforcement officials on domestic violence issues – one of the many unique jobs Ellenberger has held.
“They have summer jobs for students within North Slope Borough to get paid,” she said. “It’s all part of the mayor’s program, and in high school it gave me the chance to work in wildlife, shipping and receiving, law departments and other roles. In Alaska, you’re able to work at age 14, and they’d pick you up and take you to where you needed to go. Most of it was clerical work, but the mayor’s job program helped kids do stuff with their time instead of rot their brains, so I did all kinds of stuff.”
The city's claim to fame is not only known as the northernmost point in the state of Alaska, but also the northernmost settlement in the country. It’s also where pilot Wiley Post and actor Will Rogers died in 1935 when Post’s airplane crashed into a river in Point Barrow, Alaska, killing the two. A combined memorial is located in the town along with a regional airport named in their memory.
As for Ellenberger, she was the first grandchild in her family born in the United States. She enjoys crocheting, cooking and baking, and traveling, and said it’s been more than a decade, however, since she’s been to the Last Frontier. Most of their family trips are planned around food.
*By Brit Milazzo, public relations director, BASD