Common Threads volunteer: Week 1 in the kitchen

The smallest side of the kitchen with just two stations.
On the other side of the range, the kitchen goes on and on and on…
My journey started with a lengthy drive to Englewood, a part of Chicago which has one of the highest murder rates in the country…not a place I normally visit. I parked and walked into a large campus building part of Kennedy-King College. An attendant directed me down a hallway. I could hear little kids.
I came in right when the volunteer coordinator walked in too and we sat down in the cafeteria side with a terrific view of the kitchen through long, large windows. The kids were loud and happy moving smoothly through two very large commercial kitchen areas. Most were wearing matching shirts with Common Threads written on them.
I chatted with the volunteer coordinator about the program and I received an apron and a badge (with my real first name on it). The volunteer coordinator is a former teacher and a Southerner. What is it about a Southern accent to make a person feel welcome? She explained how the camp experience is focused on teaching basic cooking skills while making recipes from other cultures. Every day the campers spend two hours in the kitchen cooking. Another hour is spent in the garden growing vegetables they later incorporate into meals they prepare themselves (for example, Swiss chard). The remaining hour is a cultural lesson related to the region’s cuisine they will be preparing. They learn a cultural dance and/or craft depending on what is appropriate for the culture they ar studying. For the Southeast Asian week, the students did an hour of yoga. Finally each Friday they have a field trip. One Friday the students went to a farm (the Heritage Prairie Farm to be specific) — oh how I wish I could have come along! There would be campers that had never laid eyes on a farm. In fact, the cuisine that the students cooked up every day could be totally new to them as well.

We finished my orientation and I found myself feeling a little nervous about entering in the kitchen. The volunteer coordinator told me I was assigned to a group of the older kids (5th and 6th graders).

The first group of younger kids had finished preparing their meals and eating them and had moved into the cafeteria area for a group lesson with their camp counselors. There are two large groups that alternate — while one group cooks for two hours, the other group is either in the garden or receiving a cultural lesson. Then they switch. So the kitchen is always hopping.

I met the chef and the kitchen staff and at least for this shift I would be the only volunteer on half of the kitchen. On the menu: Eygptian food! Falafel with toasted pita bread, Dukkah encrusted salmon, Kushari (rice and lentils with veggies), and Amba (mango condiment). The kids have a lesson on a part of the world they may not have thought about before and then they cook that region’s food — and eat it!

As a volunteer my duties were to float around the four stations (two falafel, one salmon, one stew) and make sure that no one cut themselves. The chef commanded the Amba and salmon areas with a couple camp counselors and so I ended up basically parking myself at one of the falafel and Kushari stations where there were fewer adults.

Another reason I joined that group was that I noticed one of the more interesting students “Joe” was assigned to make falafel. I noticed him during the group lesson as the most outspoken and loud and I saw that he needed some redirection to pay attention to the lesson. That’s not to say he was not intelligent because he knew the answers to the questions posed by the chef. In fact, I noticed that when the chef asked questions about the previous day’s lessons, most kids knew the answers and I was encouraged to think they had retained that information (sometimes kids don’t remember things the next day). My personality and skill set often pushes me towards kids traditionally labeled as “troubled,” so I definitely wanted to be a support to the student if he needed someone.

The chef did a lesson on chopping an onion and using the “bear claw.” For the kids this was day two using this technique so when actually chopping they needed just a couple reminders. The kids also learned “the bridge” technique and later how to “plank” an onion. I never went to cooking school or had any chef training and so this was new information to me! I’ll never chop an onion the same way again.

I felt much older than the camp counselors…and I was. Most of the camp counselors are young, college-aged. The kitchen felt vibrant and alive with all the young people. I stayed focused on my main duty of making sure no one cut themselves by sticking close to the cutting board. There was a taller girl chopping an onion and she seemed shy, cautiously looking around. She was very good with the knife, but initially needed reminder to use the “bear claw.” I told her she had great knife skills. She beamed.

The kitchen was busy. Camp counselors were moving quickly around the station, gathering ingredients, and looking at the recipe sheets, which at first glance do look daunting (maybe not the falafel, but how often have you tackled Kushari in your kitchen?). These kids didn’t need a lot of help identifying ingredients and moved quickly making falafel after chopping the onions. The great thing about kids is that they just get in there and go; there isn’t any adult-like hesitation.

I started cleaning up an area and took a knife to the back sink where two girl members of the kitchen staff were washing the sharp objects. The large commercial sinks were crowded by kids washing prep bowls, garbage bowls, and spatulas. WHAM — the smell of the area immediate brought me back to college about 15 years ago when I washed dishes in the hot, dank basement of my college dorm. I wore a hairnut and sweated profusely for a year as I stood in the spray of the commericial dishwasher. I couldn’t help it; I had to back away from the dishwashing area. The flashback was too vivid.

I retreated to the falafel station and saw the kids waiting to use the food processor to grind up our chickpeas, onions, and spices. I moved to work with the students placing triangles of pita bread on massive sheet pans. They spread generous amounts of olive oil on them using a brush. It was my first chance to chat with two of the students including “Joe.” “Joe” and the other student “Lou” answered my questions about their schools and before I knew it they started talking about the violence in their community. “Lou” told me about a relative who got shot and he was really sad about it. “Joe” also told me about hearing gunshots outside his home. What does one say to a child when they tell you this information? Are there words? I only could muster, “Wow, I’m really sorry to hear that happened.” I felt that my response was inadequate, but I felt honored that they felt comfortable telling me something so personal and traumatic.

And then we just finished our task and the bustle of a kitchen took over. “Lou” carried the tray of pita bread to the oven and my eyes got wide as I worried he would drop it. Of course he did fine and even put it in the oven himself. “Lou” and I started chatting about his life and I asked if he had any brothers or sisters. He told me that he was an only child. “Lou” was a quiet, sweet boy with very large eyes who didn’t smile that much but when he told me that his mother was expecting and how excited he was to be a big brother, he smiled widely.

The rest of the session was clean up while we waited for everything to bake (salmon), to cook (Kushari) or to fry (falafel). The Amba just needed to be stirred. The camp counselors worked with small groups of kids by the stove (there wasn’t space for nosy volunteers). The kids did a great job putting everything where it needed to be, wiping surfaces, and dropping cutting boards into soapy water.

Another part of my job as a volunteer is to eat what we make. During my earlier training the volunteer coordinator told me that I had to eat everything even if I didn’t like something because the kids would notice if I didn’t eat something and might not want to eat it too. Well, I’ve got 101 school lunches under my belt so I didn’t think the food would be a problem for me! By the way, the kids have to try a mouthful of every item.

When everything was ready, we all gathered around and “The Creed” was read. Essentially the creed is a chant or poem read before the kids eat. It goes as follows:

Today we learned how people in another country live, and what they eat!
Today we tasted healthy foods and practiced eating well to keep us strong.
People all over the world–and even in this room–are different!

But we all have things in common:
We can work together, share together,
Learn together, cook together and then…

Together we can EAT!

I’m a sap and I got a little choked up when the group recited it. Then the kids, the chef, the camp counselors, and myself started serving everyone up. It took awhile but everyone got some. And the kids ate it and so did I: it was delicious. The spices and flavors were perfect. I made a point of asking “Joe” what he thought and he said he didn’t like the salmon, but I saw him try it and eat the other food.

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15 thoughts on “Common Threads volunteer: Week 1 in the kitchen

  1. Oh what an incredible experience! I have kept up with Common Threads for a while now and would love to jump on a plane and join them either on staff or just to volunteer. It's such an amazing program. Glad you had great time.

  2. This sounds like s truly memorable day and experience that will stay with you. Seeing the effect this program has on the children is powerful. I'm sure Joe and Lou felt a little lighter after being able to share some of the weight they carry around all day with you.

    Cheers to getting out there, trying, supporting good things.


  3. what a great experience! do you think you can take and post a picture of the food next time?

  4. What a heart warming experience. Love the creed.
    The food sounds delicious! Love that there is a program like this for kids. Hope every day of your adventure was as fantastic as this one.

  5. I think I’ve been too naive about all of this. I’ve generally thought that most people do know how to cook, how to garden, how to identify food in its natural state. My thinking was that many might choose NOT do those things – either because they don’t enjoy it, they don’t have time…a host of other reasons. However, I’m starting to wonder if there are, indeed, many that don’t have the knowledge.

    If that is true, and a vast majority of the students in school are rarely exposed to anything other than ready-prepared foods (either at home, take-out, restaurant meals), my humble opinion is that there will need to be many steps taken to get from that point (students mostly familiar with prepared foods) to seeing students excited about “home cooking” in school meals.

    It is an interesting situation. Once everyone has reached a consensus of the perfect plan for school meals, (for now, assume everyone could agree, we could get the funding, time, and so on) do we simply start to serve those meals, put on the plate no matter if they want it or not and figure sooner or later the students will eat them? Or do we take a different approach and find a way to reach the families/students using other resources (like your experience) until the students are wanting & willing to consume the perfect meals? Something in between?

  6. In response to the suggestions that I take pictures of the food… Imagine a commerical kitchen. I was working with the kids, camp counselors, chefs, and other volunteers. We had clean hands. Our purses and other belongings were stashed in a cabinet on the far side. It would have been quite the spectacle if I left and returned with my cell phone! I would have loved to have shared that with you, but it wouldn't have been possible. However, I know the folks at Common Threads are reading the blog and that's a great suggestion for them to incorporate into their website and blog.

    When I'm working "undercover" in my own school, I can be discreet about taking my lunch to my room. Not so in a large group!

  7. Maggie – Very good observations. Americans have lost our food culture. I think programs like this one have the potential of changing many homes. The kids were excited and happy to be in the kitchen. The kids told me that they wanted to share the recipes with their families at home. They receive recipe copies so parents can see exactly what the kids made.

    Many readers say that we need to start in the home and not in the school. True. However, if parents don't have the cooking skills, where can they go? To reverse the trend of not cooking, we need to start with today's kids and give them the tools to be successful in the kitchen so that they can be healthy and strong. The key is education. Lack of education is the root of many problems.

  8. Mrs. Q, I can see why you said in your entry yesterday that this experience was transformative for you! I got misty eyed as I read The Creed so I can just imagine how it was for you hearing it being recited by a roomful of school kids.

    I volunteered years ago at an orphanage. I was a member of a community service organization and we used to take the kids on outings to amusement parks and ball games. We also used to throw picnics and cookouts and holiday parties for them.

    At one of our picnics, I was sitting at a table with a bunch of girls ranging from about 5 yrs. old to 16 yrs. old. The oldest girl thanked me for all the work we did to put the event together. She said that it really meant a lot to the kids that we did that for them. She said that even though they were taken care of very well at the facility, all of the kids craved adult attention especially if it involved doing something fun. I could just about have burst into tears.

    Later, when we were able to talk one-on-one, I told her I understood how crappy it was for her and the other kids not to have a parent or consistent adult in their lives. I told her how unfair it was, that no kid deserves that, and to always remember that the situation was not her fault. Then I told her to hang in there because she had the power to make a happier life for herself once she reached adulthood if she could just get through a few more tough years. I encouraged her to stay in school and work as hard as she could and stay out of trouble no matter what. I promised her it would all be worth it.

    I saw her a couple of times after that and we talked more. She seemed to understand my message. After that, she was placed with a relative who lived in another state and that was the last I heard about her. I always hoped that she would remember what I told her and that the relative who gave her a home also gave her the adult guidance and consistency she so desperately needed and deserved.

    The things Lou and Joe told you must really get a kid down. They're living 24/7 with the stress of fearing for their lives and the lives of those they love. My experience might give you some ideas about things you can say to kids who tell you about painful things in their lives. Your post jogged my memory about my own experience and reminded me why I need to go back and volunteer at that orphanage again.

    Thanks so much for sharing this experience with us, Mrs. Q! I can't wait to hear about what happened on the rest of your volunteer days!

  9. 3 years ago, I moved in with a friend of mine. He was in the process of a divorce and he had his children 2 nights a week and every other weekend. One of his biggest problems was that he never learned how to cook, so when he cooked food for his children, it was usually the same thing all the time. They were getting tired of it and the oldest was actually at the point where they didn't want to come so much because of that. I was able to take over the kitchen and on the weekends that they weren't there, I would give him brief lessons on how to cook things they would eat.

    Luckily for us, they both loved certain vegetables and would honor our rule of trying something three different times before saying they didn't like it. The last summer I was there, we grew tomatos on the balcony and the youngest one couldn't wait to come and eat the freshly picked tomatos.

    Teach them young, make them try a food 3 separate times, and let them grow something they can then eat. You'd be amazed at how much they learn to love all sorts of things.

  10. Thank you for your comments. I had a blast! Just like so many things in life, when you give you get back way more. Kids are great.

  11. That is a great experience, I may have to use some of those ideas in my cooking classes. "Food is Love" it can really change how people/ kids look at things.

  12. Hi Mrs. Q! I've been keeping up with your blog for a long time but this is the first post that made me want to comment.

    I grew up in a great home with parents that loved to cook and encouraged us to participate in the kitchen. Going to the grocery store was an event – my father would peruse the aisles literally for hours teaching us what to look for and what to avoid. We'd then go home and prepare and cook the meal together. Cooking and eating truly was an experience in our household!

    I took for granted that a lot of kids don't get this same encouragement, so to read this post made me really really miss my parents. I live in Chicago and decided to research Common Threads a bit more. I absolutely LOVE their mission, so much so that I've already written to their volunteer coordinator about spending some time with their organization.

    Thank you for reminding me how good I had it while encouraging me to help those that aren't so lucky. Keep up the fantastic work!

  13. @ Maggie –

    People don't know how to cook. I didn't know what real food was supposed to taste like until I worked with my sister (a real chef) in my early 20's. I'm 35 now and I have roommates in their early 20's. They always gather round to watch me chop herbs and marinade chicken, pork and beef… and ask why I would use thyme and rosemary one day and basil the next. I just tell them wait to taste and see. Being single and having younger roomies, there is plenty of fast food and pizza around. But when we actually cook, it's a special occasion. Unfortunately, I seem to feel this is the norm and it really shouldn't be.

  14. Casey – Thank you so much for saying that you were inspired by my volunteering. I think you will love it. I know they are have volunteer spots available for the Fall! I won't be able to participate in in the Fall, but I want to volunteer again after the project is over. Thanks for sharing that with me and please contact me when/if you volunteer. I want to know what you think of it!

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