When Al Siekert was growing up and got his report card in grade school, the category he always failed was, “Plays well with others.” As a little boy, he’d spent two years in the hospital, receiving multiple surgeries as doctors tried to triage issues with his trachea. Instead of spending those formative years learning how to socialize with other children, he was interacting with medical staff.

More than 75 years later, Al Siekert, 80, has just received an A+ in the social engagement category of his community report card. One of five finalists among many local citizens nominated as “unsung heroes,” all of whom have been doing great things without expectation of praise or reward, Siekert has been named the official winner of the “2023 Herald Hometown Heroes” campaign.

The founder of “Al Siekert & Friends Sunday Breakfast,” Siekert was surprised and humbled to learn he’d won the award. Even though he has shown up every Sunday for 10 years, without fail, to feed the hungry among us with the fresh, warm food this former chef works through the night to prepare and then serve at Window on the Bay Park, near Del Monte Beach.

“A lot of people are doing really good work in this community,” he said, “and many of them are out there with me, week after week, volunteering to feed the hungry. I’ve met many wholesome, quality people through this, who step up and make this possible. I was a one-man band for years, but all of a sudden, people started coming out to lend a hand.”

When local citizens, many of them members of “Al Siekert & Friends,” were asked how Siekert might feel were he to win the contest, and what he might do with the $500 prize, they were excited just at the prospect.

“It would be awesome if Al won, and he would feel good about it too,” said Justin Tyme Noren, secretary of the Al & Friends Board. “We love bragging about Al and are all so proud to be part of what he does. This award would legitimize what he’s doing in our community.”

Noren knows, with his prize money, Siekert deserves to use it on some kind of creature comfort. But he’d more likely put it into his “Al & Friends toolbox.” Or, knowing Al, Noren says, he’d probably spend it on an ad in the paper to say thank you.

Pacific Grove resident Clare Lindberg looks forward to seeing Siekert when she walks down to Grove Market on Saturdays. She typically puts a donation in the pot, but she recognizes he’s less about getting money and more about feeding the hungry and sharing the experience with others.

“Al doesn’t have an inflated ego,” Lindberg said. “He’s just interested in providing the Sunday breakfast and getting everyone to share that sense of community. And he never wants a person’s challenges to define them. He’s a Jimmy Carter kind of guy; he’s all about the dignity of people.”

Clare Lindberg imagined, if Siekert won the Herald Hero award, he’d put the $500 prize into the kitty to help pay for breakfast.

Volunteer Nancy Goldrain believed, if Siekert were to win the Herald Hero Award, it would affect him mostly on a soul level.

“Life has given Al many hard times and difficult experiences,” Goldrain said. “I believe Al’s internal dialogue has been formed by what the world has echoed to him over the course of his life. Al is different. And thankfully so. He has an amazing heart and is able to lead a team and show up without excuses for the most under-privileged group of people in Monterey.

“Being able to celebrate him as a hero in the city he serves would boost his morale and deliver a strong positive message to affirm what he has been creating for years. This would boost his sense of self and his joy of service.”

Goldrain felt certain, were Siekert to win the $500 award, he would use it to fund two more breakfasts, feeding 120 people on two Sundays.

“Al Siekert is the real deal, and he devotes his time, energy and resources way beyond his Sunday morning free breakfasts,” said volunteer Tom Brocato. “We often find Al traveling around the Monterey Peninsula, delivering a meal to anyone who needs it. Knowing Al, if he won this award, he definitely would put it back into serving his community.”

Yet, since Brocato happens to know that Siekert’s favorite treat is “Good & Plenty” licorice candy, he’s hoping his colleague would save just enough of his prize money to buy a box or two to enjoy before he prepares his next week’s breakfast.Beyond breakfast

Siekert actually plans to put the $500 prize toward his “shoe tree,” a metaphorical reference to the Christmas trees that show up in banks and shopping malls, with tags tied to the branches, bearing the name and desires of children and their parents, who lack the resources to purchase gifts and essentials during the holidays.

“I don’t have an actual tree,” said Siekert. “I just want to buy shoes for people who need them, so they don’t have to wear hand-me-down shoes that don’t suit them, or go without. Sometimes people let me know they need shoes. Other times, I just look at their feet and know we need to go to the shoe store.”

This all started about eight years ago, when Siekert saw the need to provide shoes and started meeting people at the local Big 5 sporting goods store in Monterey. He’d seat the person, hand them a fresh pair of socks, and let them pick out their own shoes.

“I don’t decide which shoes they get,” said Siekert, “and I don’t care where they’ll walk in them or what they’ll do later. If they need shoes, I’m going to get them shoes.”

Last year, Siekert bought 27 pairs of shoes; sometimes, he provides shoes for more than 30 people. The Pacific Grove Officers Association has been instrumental in making Siekert’s “shoe tree” happen, he says, at the behest of Sgt. Jeff Fenton.

“We’d get together once a year for a Christmas party, “ said retired reserve officer Ken Rolle, “and Sgt. Fenton would pass the hat to collect funds for ‘Al & Friends.’ One year, we all donated shoes to his holiday shoe drive.”

Fenton believed, if Siekert were to be crowned the Herald Hero, he would invest his winnings to buy a celebration breakfast for everybody else.

“I think Al’s earned every accolade and community award there is,” said Fenton. “It’s amazing how someone who has faced his own challenge of being unhoused, has turned it around and has given so much to others.”

Fenton’s investment in Siekert’s “shoe tree” began after he asked Siekert what the Pacific Grove Police Officers Association could do to support his efforts. Siekert said he wanted to take unhoused people to a store to buy them shoes that fit instead of the typical “one size fits no one” donations.

“At our annual Christmas party,” said Fenton, “Our donation for the next few years was based on an ‘Empty your pockets’ challenge. Nowadays people don’t carry much cash, so the Pacific Grove Officers Association donates around $250 a year for the ‘shoe tree.’”

Siekert says he’s never actually lost his shoes, at least not the ones he had on. “But I’ve seen people,” he said, “who have. I’ve been the guy in need; I’ve been on both ends of the stick. Any time we can inspire others to help others, we’ve shifted the community, made a difference. I believe it was Colin Powell who said, ‘You cannot command people to follow you, but if you serve them, they will come.’ That’s our mission.”

At first, feeding the hungry in his community was something Siekert thought he had chosen to do. Turns out, he says, he was chosen. “And it’s an honor.”

To learn more about Al & Friends, volunteer, or make a donation to this nonprofit organization, visit alandfriends.org