EAGLE RIVER, Alaska — Friday nights mean a full kitchen at The Homestead.
Stephanie Caudle starts preparing early. House cleaning starts around noon, she said, dinner preparation begins around 4 p.m. and guests start arriving an hour or so later. Dinner's served at 6 p.m., Caudle said, followed by games, Bible study and dessert. Sometimes, she said, guests stick around until 1 or 2 a.m.
They're mostly young, mostly single and overwhelmingly military, she said, members of the U.S. Army and Air Force stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Many of them came to Alaska from southern states like Georgia, Texas and Florida. Some joined the military to escape, she said, while others are missing home.
"You have different types of people with the same needs: a family away from their family," Caudle said. "And that's what we try to do. Our goal is to provide a home away from home for service members."
In Eagle River, where military families make up a significant part of the community, The Homestead plays a vital role, according to the people who gather there. Located on a sprawling property in a secluded North Eagle River neighborhood, the military hospitality house is part of the evangelical missionary organization Cadence International, which runs dozens of similar houses worldwide. Caudle and her husband, Bob Caudle, wear two hats, working as Cadence missionaries and also young adult coordinators with the JBER Chapel, she said.
They organize cook-outs, game nights, hiking trips and other outdoor excursions, Caudle said, and every week, they serve a group meal to approximately 20-70 local military members and their families.
The June 23 menu featured a pasta bar, cheesy garlic bread and salad. Hours before dinner, Caudle bustled around the kitchen, directing volunteers and checking stovetops and warming dishes. She was expecting a relatively small crowd of about 20 people, she said.
"I called, Samantha's not coming," said Chugiak resident Kristen Kolp, slicing baguettes at the counter.
"Elizabeth will be here but her child will not," said Caudle, checking a pot of pasta on the stove.
The kitchen was bright and fragrant. A recent newcomer to The Homestead, Shawna Parent sliced vegetables for a salad, chatting and sharing counter space with the other cooks. After arriving in Alaska earlier this year to get married to a military man, Parent said, women at The Homestead had helped throw her a wedding. She's been part of the group ever since, she said.
"Everybody's so nice, you don't feel like you're new," Parent said. "You feel like you've been here forever."
The Homestead first opened its doors in 2006, Caudle said. She and her husband arrived in 2012 after spending five years running a Cadence hospitality house in South Korea. While the countries are different, the goal is the same, Caudle said. She refers to it as the Five Fs: Food, friends, fun, family and faith.
"We're about all of those things," she said. "We love meeting people wherever they're at — we believe everyone's on a spiritual journey, whether you're a believer or not a believer in Jesus."
Running The Homestead isn't cheap, Caudle said. It relies entirely on private donations and the contract with the JBER Chapel. Rent at the Almdale Avenue home costs about $3,500 per month, and the hospitality house runs on an $8,000 monthly budget. In a quest for permanence, The Homestead is in the middle of a drive to purchase its current property, Caudle said. So far, the organization has raised approximately $91,000 of the $165,000 down payment, she said. The property's full price tag is around $690,000. Its future remains to be seen, Caudle said.
"A lot of our stuff is dependent on money," she said. "Like life."
Kolp, who began coming to The Homestead about four years ago, said she and her husband first spent time at a Cadence hospitality house as young newlyweds stationed overseas.
"That's when we started believing in this ministry, because we were in Germany, far away from family," she said, spreading shredded mozzarella over sliced baguettes.
After spending more than a decade at an Air Force base in Arkansas, Kolp said, her family relocated to Alaska, finding new fellowship at The Homestead. Her daughter had met her future husband there, Kolp said.
Now she and her husband plan on staying in Chugiak for the long run, she said. Her husband is preparing for retirement and the Eagle River hospitality house feels like a second home, she said. For Christians in the military, Kolp said, The Homestead "fills a vacuum."
Not everyone can stay for long. Most people can only stay three or four years - the length of the average deployment, Caudle said. People come and go every year.
As the clock ticked closer to 6 p.m., the spacious living room began filling with young military men and women. While Caudle and her husband live at The Homestead, the property is designed to cater to the servicemen and women it serves. Tables and chairs dot the dining room, upstairs loft and the wide back deck. There's a playroom for children, a trampoline, kayaks for borrowing and plenty of spare bedroom space for visiting family or temporary housing.
The young adults who gather at The Homestead are looking for something beyond the weekend bar scene, Caudle said.
"It's people who are looking for a community that's not out partying, that wants to enjoy life but not get plastered in the process," she said.
At The Homestead, she said, they can enjoy mostly everything but that. There's no alcohol served here.
"Our goal is to help the whole person," Caudle said
Before dinner, the guests gathered in a circle in the living room, bowing their heads to pray. It was one of Joanna Wharton's last evenings at The Homestead, she said.
She first became involved with the hospitality house after she was invited to join a group rock-climbing outing on her first day in Alaska, she said. She learned about The Homestead's mission at a newcomer's orientation on base soon thereafter.
"They mentioned it being a home away from home, and we were like, 'We're lonely! We need a home away from home!'" Wharton said.
That was several years ago. It didn't take long for The Homestead to become like a second home, she said. Now that her Alaska deployment is coming to an end, she said it's going to be hard to say goodbye.
"I'm not ready to go, I'm really not," she said, relaxing in the living room. "This is my family."