There’s an annual community event that rallies support and funding for one local elementary school, all while satisfying hungry patrons with delicious chicken.
The Lee Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization Chicken BBQ, held Friday evening, has been a Manhattan staple for decades: 67 years to be exact.
The event raises money for technology and equipment at the school. But it takes a lot of work from some experienced volunteers to pull it off.
Craig Graves, Rock-A-Belly Bar & Deli kitchen manager, the “chicken master,” oversees the process for cooking the chicken to perfection.
“I’m used to dealing with large amounts of food, and putting it together,” said Graves, who has helped with the fundraiser for 12 years.
Hy-Vee furnished 250 birds while Kansas State University’s poultry department provides the tasty BBQ sauce, which has been the same recipe since the first fundraiser, Graves said.
Cooks place the chicken in metal racks above a long pit filled with 500 pounds of charcoal at KSU’s poultry unit, at 2000 Marlatt Ave. The volunteers turn the chicken until it’s is cooked to a golden brown.
After that, volunteers place the chicken in the sauce, and then resume cooking it over the coals.
This double-cooking method ensures the chicken is cooked all the way through, Graves said.
“Nothing’s better than cooking chicken with some friends,” Graves said.
Meredith and Will, Graves’ two children, attended Lee. Meredith is now a sophomore at Manhattan High School and Will is in his first year at Eisenhower Middle School.
Graves said people still volunteer to help with the fundraiser even after their children age out of Lee.
“The best part is that we’ve all done it together for a long number of years,” he said.
The event allows friends to catch up with one another while prepping and getting the chicken ready.
“It’s (an) opportunity for us to see each other once a year and kinda reconnect with some of the other parents that have had kids at Lee,” he said. “We have a lot of camaraderie out here.”
Phil Hewins, who Graves refers to as his “right-hand man,” is another person who helps get the birds ready. This is his seventh year volunteering.
He said he enjoys the process of cooking the chicken.
“There’s a sequence that they’ve used for years and years,” Hewins said.
This year, Hewins’ 12-year-old son Cale, a sixth grader, helped.
“This is my first year that I’ve come out here and really helped,” Cale said. “But yeah, I’m liking it so far.”
Hewins’ daughter, CJ, is the same age as Meredith, Graves’ daughter. Meredith also attended Lee.
Graves said he plans to help with the fundraisers in the future.
“It’s just a lot of fun to do and I’m glad to keep up with the tradition,” he said. “And I’ll always cook chickens.”