Friday, July 30, 2010

Summer Vacation?

by: Courtney Turner
When I was a child, my mother was very close to my two siblings and me. I mean, very close, to a fault, perhaps! No, I mean my mom has a beautiful soul and I love her dearly, but she felt very attached to us kids. She never wanted me to attend camp, because summer was her time to spend with us, I know, very sweet and endearing, but to me, I wished and prayed and begged, for summer camp.

Now I’m director of summer camp, after never attending one single day as a child. I am, in fact, living out my childhood dreams. I get to coordinate dream fieldtrips, things that children will never forget, no matter how old, jaded or ‘cool’ they grow up to be. I am so excited to go to camp, and my inner child comes out every time I step into Kennedy King College. “How I wish my mom put me in a cooking camp” I think to myself! What a wonderful opportunity it would have been for me to express my creativity and see that I could be good at something deemed, “so grown up.”

I see so many children in the Englewood neighborhood who have never attended summer camp either, but I was one of the lucky ones. My mom is a caring, nurturing woman, and I was well taken care of as a child. These children got a different role of the dice. I was grabbing something at Walgreens, just the other day, and I saw 2 children, both around age 8. I noticed them first, because I thought they looked young to be shopping by themselves. The second thing I noticed was that they were hungry, “ah, I wish I could buy this” one kid mentioned while pointing at a bag of chips, “I’m so hungry,” the other responded.

Pacing outside the Walgreens on the South Side of Chicago, I did not know what to do. I didn’t want to treat them like charity and embarrass them; I did not want to leave these children hungry. When they finally came out with a single bag of ice, I asked them, “Hey, did you guys eat lunch today?” as it was 2:00pm in the afternoon. One child responded, “No, it’s summer vacation.” I was confused, “I know it’s summer, but have you eaten?” the child yet again repeated, “No, it’s summer, we don’t get lunch in the summer, only in school.” My heart was crushed in one split second, like stepping on a glass and feeling the shock and the shatter through your whole body. Here I am, teaching kids how to cook healthy food everyday for 6 weeks, and these kids down the street have been going hungry every one of these days. I felt just sick to my stomach. I wanted to yell, to scream at someone and scoop these kids up in my arms and somehow, make this situation okay, but I can’t. I can’t save the world, the south side of Chicago, or perhaps even this family, but I was going to give them some food. I took them right over to Dunkin’ Donuts and bought for them bagels and cream cheese for their family.

I went back to camp with tears in my eyes that day. I looked out at the camp that I helped create with a much different perspective. What a haven we have created. What a wonderful experience for these lucky 200 children we have had the great opportunity to help this summer. Though Common Threads may not save the world, we will have enriched all these children’s lives and minds, and we have given them a safe and loving space for an amazing summer vacation, they & I will never forget.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Common Threads

Guest blogger: Kate Vatter

One of the fun parts about working for a non-profit is that the non-profit community is very close-knit. Everyone knows everyone, and, for the most part, supports each other. About a month ago, I had the opportunity to tag along with a friend of mine to visit a non-profit that she supports – so I brought my camera along to capture the experience, natch. ;)

Common Threads was created by Wendy’s friend Art Smith, former personal chef to Oprah, who has also cooked for several of Florida’s governors (Wendy worked in Jeb Bush’s office when he was governor) and has been working with Michelle Obama on her obesity-prevention campaign. Common Threads is, quite honestly, the kind of place I would love to work. The organization offers 12-week, after-school cooking classes for underprivileged children – to teach and emphasize the importance of nutrition and well-being, but also to foster an appreciation of cultural diversity.

This is Chef Mimi, who runs the Miami-based program. The classes are held at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus (Florida International University, for those of you who aren’t down with the Florida school system acronyms), in the hospitality department’s student kitchens.

I tagged along with Wendy when she was going to volunteer, and everything about the program is amazing. Seriously. Each week focuses on a different county (see below). The kids are brought to the campus from their respective elementary schools, where they are fed a little snack, do stretches, and Mimi teaches a lesson about whichever county is the focus of that particular day. The day I was there, they were studying France.

Each of the kids gets a photo-copied packet of the recipes. In addition to focusing on certain cultural issues, each lesson also focuses on specific cooking techniques. The day I was there, the kids learned “emulsifying” and “searing.”

They made pork tenderloin with red pepper coulis, broccoli and cauliflower with cheesy sauce, and a goat cheese salad.

The necessary ingredients are already measured out and prepped for them, but…

…the kids do all of it themselves! Chef Mimi did a demonstration searing the pork tenderloin – “Now I’m going to teach you all how to sear.” – and this girl was the lucky duck who got to actually do the cooking. (They only made one piece of pork.)

The kids were all completely engrossed. It was amazing. The kids are divided up into two to three kids per adult volunteer, and each group makes each recipe. At the end, all of the individual dishes the kids made are thrown into one big dish and then served! The three on the left in the photograph below were in Wendy’s group, so I spent most of my time with them.

On the left is Chef Alison and C., and on the right is E., L., and F. Are the chef hats the cutest things you’ve ever seen, or what?

In previous lessons, the kids had learned safe chopping, cutting and dicing skills, and they did all of the food preparation themselves. The kids do all of the cooking themselves, actually, with the adults just supervising and giving instruction when needed.

L. had just come to the United States and barely spoke English, but when she was assigned the task of slicing red peppers, she knew exactly what she was doing.

Just look at her face! She was measuring vinegar for the salad dressing, and the look of pride on her face when she measured it accurately is just the sweetest thing. It breaks my heart – but in a good way!

This girl, the one with the skillet, was adorable. She had a little stool she carried around the kitchen with her because she was too short to reach any of the countertops.

This is E., on the right, with Chef Alison and two of the girls in her group. They were making a cheese sauce for fondue, and she confided to me, “They were a little over-zealous with the cheese.” I thought to myself, Clearly she doesn’t know who she’s talking to. I am the Cheese Princess, okay. I told her there were worse things in life than being over-zealous with cheese!

They put together the red pepper coulis (which was red peppers and yellow onions sautéed in butter and chicken broth, then Mimi and one of the adult volunteers poured all of them into a blender and puréed it); the salad (which required chopping veggies and emulsifying the oil and vinegar and mustard to make the salad dressing); and the cheese fondue sauce (which was…interesting). All of the groups food was combined, which also helped smooth out any issues individual groups had with particular dishes. Then the kids helped dish up all of the food onto individual plates.

Seriously, how cute is she?! I’m such a sucker when it comes to little kids.

The final meal:

The kids cleaned up their stations and then everybody sat down to eat. Before they ate, though, the whole group recited the Common Threads Creed, which I thought was really, really touching. (Imagine it in a bunch of children’s voices!)

Then everyone ate.

This was me with my group. Also, I had gone after work, so I was wearing a white pencil skirt and a white blouse. I would like to note for posterity that I was roaming around a huge kitchen full of kids carrying and splashing red pepper purée everywhere, and I did not get any on me.

Honestly, though, the best part was seeing how self-assured the kids were in the kitchen. I grew up helping my parents in the kitchen – both of my parents were amazing cooks (and bakers), and we have home videos of me “helping” cook when I was only three years old. I never cease to be amazed when I visit adult friends who can’t do anything in the kitchen. Or the youth that come to our programs and refuse to eat anything but junk food or fast food. When I work with our youth, who are in their late teens and twenties (many of whom have children of their own) and are feeding their infants and toddlers Cheetos and candy. When I scolded one of the girls for feeding her 9-month-old chips, she defensively told me that the Cheetos dissolved in the baby’s mouth and it was fine. It boggles the mind. Because to me, on what planet would you ever feed a developing child crap like that? But the saddest part is that kids who aren’t raised with health-conscious parents just don’t know any better. (Maybe they should bring back Home Ec! Ha. :) )

The thing I love about Common Threads is that it emphasizes cooking as a family, and cooking healthy meals as a family. For the final session, the parents come and eat the meal cooked by the kids, and at the end, each child gets to take home a kitchen starter-kit (with basic ingredients and spices) and some kid-friendly cookbooks. Wendy gave me the Common Threads press packet (I’m in charge of putting the information together for the press information for our organization, too, so I always like to check out other non-profits’ just to get new ideas for things to include) and some of the stats they list are really neat – 88% of the children who participate ask their parents for healthier food or food learned about in class at the grocery store, the kids report eating more fruit, more vegetables, and healthier lunches.

Right now, Common Threads only has a couple of affiliate sites – two in Miami, 14 in Chicago, a couple in Los Angeles and one in Washington, D.C. But I have been thinking a lot about Common Threads since I started went to see the program – I wonder what the process is for starting one in a smaller town. The whole program only costs $15,000 per session! (Although they do two per year, I believe, one in the fall and one in the spring.) Which is an amazingly low-budget for a non-profit. Anyway…something I’m keeping on my radar screen for the future…

Friday, July 23, 2010

Neighborhood Mash Up!

by: Jillayne Samatas

I have found that for me, one of the neatest things about Common Threads’ Summer Camp is that kids come from neighborhoods all over the city. I know this may not seem like a big deal to some, but to me I recognize the power this simple fact has. Even though Chicago is so diverse, many children go to racially and culturally homogeneous schools with not much diversity. Our Summer Camp provides the kids an opportunity to work with other people that may look or act different from them. That’s why to both the program and me representation from many different neighborhoods has a direct effect on the immediate idea of diversity.

My obsession with Chicago neighborhoods and neighborhoods in general is one I have had for as long as I can remember. I remember being fascinated with how communities change. My work at Common Threads has only solidified my interest. Everyday on the news you hear about terrible things that happen in Englewood or Austin or other areas in the city. It starts to wear on you and you start to believe that the whole area is a place to stay far far away. However, as I drive in these neighborhoods there is a different feeling I get. People live there and are raising families, trying to put food on the table and trying to keep their families safe. The stigma attached to the names of some of these neighborhoods is one that hopefully the neighborhoods can grow beyond in the future, in the very near future.

I completely understand the rationale of this fear; no one wants to go to a place you hear bad things about almost everyday. As I drive down these streets, many with boarded up houses, the feeling of isolation is prevalent, yet I have to believe there is hope in these areas; a sense of hope that things may change in a way that doesn’t move people out and but brings more, different and other people in.
A couple months ago I attended a meeting at one of our partner schools in Englewood. The meeting consisted of organizations that partnered with the school and parents of students that attended the school. There were approximately 10 parents there and to hear their perspectives was a life changing moment for me. We guess a lot of the time what it feels like or what it may be like to live in some of these neighborhoods we hear about on the news, but we really don’t know the half of it. The more we understand the plight and the path of the people trying to do right in those communities, the more knowledge and diversity can make real a difference.

It isn’t something that will happen overnight, it isn’t something that will happen with Common Threads alone. It will take the kids, the parents of those kids, the teachers of those kids, and the community of all the ones fighting to enrich their lives. Then and only then, will the reports we hear about Englewood or Austin or Beverly or Humboldt Park be about the great things happening in those neighborhoods. Maybe, just maybe it starts with Common Threads and a Neighborhood Mash-Up!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Dream

At a birthday party, I saw my daughter and son quietly grab a Hershey’s Kiss and run under the table to enjoy the candy. I asked my husband, “Who are they hiding from?” He looked at me knowingly.

Maybe I am crazy. Maybe my kids will become food hoarders. Maybe they will be embarrassed of me and the food I serve to them and their friends. But, I am holding out for my dream.

Here it is. Ready?

My colleague Allison told me about one of her and her husbands’ friends. They have three kids, are huge foodies and cook together as a family unit. One of the teenage boys was telling his dad one Saturday that he was off with a friend to the movies and to grab a quick bite to eat and the dad said, “Are you sure, because we are making this for dinner,” and proceeded to show him a recipe from a food magazine.

The teenaged boy quickly called his friend and they both joined the family for dinner.

I want that. What do you want?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Is the Party Over?

by: Eleanor Leichenko

The countdown to March 1st has come and gone. The party…well, the party was fabulous. So is this food loving, kid-motivated non-profit now on padlock until the next World Festival rolls around? Most definitely not!
As an organization we continue to hold true to our mission in educating kids in urban communities about healthy, nutritious eating, and opening their eyes to the world around them. Every year we strive to better our fundraising efforts to be able to support our mission in working to enhance our after-school programming, along with introducing new ways to help the kids in the communities we serve to start taking action in their daily food choices, and working to educate their families on the importance of health and physical well-being.
Every day in our programming we work to plant a seed within our ‘mini-chefs’, and empower them with life changing skills. To be able to take a piece of produce, or any ingredient, and turn it into a life-sustaining meal is quite a skill. I always think about the families of our kids…of what neighborhoods they come from…of what their home life is like. I think about how well they do in their academics, or if they’re good at sports, but really once they’re in the kitchen, none of that matters. All of the kids come to the after-school programming on pretty much the same level playing field. They’ve either had little to no experience in the kitchen, and are really, really skeptical. It’s such a transformation 6-8 weeks into the programming to see how far the kids have come, and to know that we can trace back the ability to empower our kids to the fundraising efforts we hold throughout the year.
Perhaps not every supporter of Common Threads knows that there is more beyond the buzz of the annual gala. Or to that extent, what our fundraising efforts allow us to provide to the kids we serve in our programs.
I would love if every donor and/or party-goer could experience firsthand how much their donations mean in enabling us to fulfill our mission. Our fundraising efforts are a celebration of all that we know how to do best. Is that event planning? Not really. What it is, is a passion to be able to provide more substance in our programming and to our kids.
Our World Festival efforts this year have been the greatest to date…will we strive for more next year? Definitely.
The party is definitely not over…the party has actually only just begun.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Circle Crackers

by: Linda Novick O'Keefe

Whether or not we pay tuition, why does recommending and wanting healthy food for our kids feel like war? I just don’t get it. Why are we taking sides regarding our children’s health; our kids are not food disposals.

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend called and told me that a few mommies in her daughter’s playgroup were speaking about this crazy mom who sent emails to her pre-school and all the parents condemning the school’s snack. For the record, not one of these ladies in the playgroup went to the school or were the direct recipients of any “crazy emails.” It was this moment that I realized I finally had left my birthright: the legacy of the crazy mom who doesn’t let her kids eat circle crackers.

Here is my side of the story…

OK, so we decided to pay a pretty penny to send both our kids to pre-school but felt it was an investment in helping kick start healthy physical, emotional and spiritual habits. Naturally, it drove and continues to drive me bananas that (when shopping for a school play-date) when I inquired to my little lovelies what their friends’ favorite foods are, they declare in their adorably cute and innocent voices “circle crackers!”

I do find myself twirling my hair into knots thinking about the significant tuition and the snack served everyday to the kids including crackers that contain bleached white flour, hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn-syrup, processed cheese and raisins.

I decided to let the organic cheese vs. non organic cheese argument go. While I am pretty crazy about only serving organic dairy to my own children and the Common Threads students, it is an argument that can be exhausting even for many of the dieticians, physicians, and nutritionists that we work with.

So I started sending the school emails with studies from the Mayo Clinic on the dangers of consuming high fructose corny syrup and hydrogenated oils. The Director seemed to think any crackers other than the ones she purchased would be more expensive. So I listed just a few fresh snacks priced at Whole Foods that cost between $5-8 that would feed 16-20 children.

Then the concern was related to meeting State of IL safety standards (all snacks have to be wrapped and or packaged). I then proceeded to get quotes from Stanley’s that indicated a significant cost savings by buying fruit in bulk, which would come packaged and sealed, to meet safety requirements. This is the email I think I copied the entire class list on.

The Director then seemed to be concerned with allergens. I couldn’t think of anyone I knew that was allergic to oranges and apples and I wanted to say that (I probably did and it is possible that I replied to all on the list serve).

I did get many emails of support from like-minded mommies. I did, however, get some other emails that made me want to curl up in fetal position in my own mommy’s lap. I wanted to respond, I wanted to say so much. I found myself typing “aren’t you scared that our kids might not outlive us? I am.” I backspaced…

My husband thinks that “food” is my religion. I just think that we all have a right to eat healthy. Unfortunately, not everyone is drinking the same kool-aid.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Family Time - in the Kitchen!

by: Mimi Chacin - City Program Manager

I came to Miami 12 years ago – not knowing how to cook, not knowing a thing about kids. I discovered my love for both simultaneously. As a stay-at-home mom, I cooked often, and as my children grew into their toddler years, they would hang out with me in the kitchen. I would hand them a plastic bowl and wooden spoon to keep them entertained – even if it was just for a while. They quickly became curious about whatever ingredients I was using, and wanted to “help”. They washed vegetables, mixed dry ingredients, helped build sandwiches, took the green things off the top of the strawberries – they were more than happy to do anything at all in the kitchen. It got messy, but they were right next to me where I could keep an eye on them and I could continue doing what I had become so passionate about, cooking!
I quickly realized how great being in the kitchen was for them – they were refining their motor skills, learning about patience, cause and effect, and teamwork, to name a few. As they grew older yet, more advantages and learning opportunities became apparent – they were applying math and science skills they were learning at school, their awareness and appreciation of different cultures, social studies and geography grew, and best of all, they didn’t even realize it!
But, by far, the most incredible advantage to cooking with your kids, is the time you share together, and the tradition of cooking and eating as a family you instill in the process.
Now, 12 years later, I am lucky to be able to do it for a living. With other children, whose parents may not have the opportunity to cook with their own kids because they have two, sometimes three jobs. It is a privilege to share time with kids in the kitchen, and I am thankful to our students’ parents and caregivers for the trust they put in us to keep their children safe, healthy and engaged in the wonderful tradition of sharing time in the kitchen and at the table together.

Araceli's Story

by: Maryann Weprin from July 9

Common Threads works with 8-12 year olds, even though high school aged kids have been a long time conversation in our offices. We want to include them, we want to make an impression on their lives, but there is so much to do and so little time.

None-the-less, in the summer of 2009, we dove right in. Common Threads partnered with Chicago Public Schools to bring high school students to the Common Threads kitchens. We wanted the students to assist the chef instructor and be able to work with the kids one-on-one. We wanted the high school students to help guide our mini chefs while helping out in the kitchen. We were nervous, almost scared about what would happen. Would they be helpful? Would they get in the way? Would they show up? Araceli Villanueva eased our nerves almost immediately. She showed up early, she stayed late, the kids and chef instructor loved her, and she tells us the feeling is mutual. She helps set up class, she welcomes the kids and serves as a great role model. She helps keep the kitchen moving, she helps kids with knife skills, and she is the chefs’ right hand girl.

Our program has made Araceli see that she really loves kids. So much that she wants to become a teacher. She has been accepted into Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois and plans to have her own classroom one day. “I have learned so much from the chef instructors and now know that I can do anything. By giving me the opportunity to be a part of class I have learned that I want to be a teacher and I have seen how important it is to give back to the community,” said Araceli. This school year, Common Threads was lucky enough to have Araceli as part of our Wednesday afternoon Kennedy King College class and she has signed on as a senior intern during our 6th year of summer camp programming.

Common Threads will add two more high school girls this summer to help Araceli and our chefs at camp. We believe it is important to include high school aged students in our kitchens. We know that our volunteers make a difference in our classes and we believe that high school volunteers have the ability to make a huge difference too. In general, volunteers serve as excellent role models for our kids and enable us to allow our kids to use real kitchen equipment each day in class. We believe that when we add high school aged students to the mix we are creating a full circle. We love that our mini chefs can learn from the high school students, the high school students can learn from the adult volunteers, the mini chefs learn from the adult volunteers and round and round it goes. We believe there is great power in all three age groups working together to create a meal. Each generation will bring a new experience to the future of Common Threads mini chefs!


by: Mary Ann Weprin - from May 26

If you ask me, when you look up the word superwoman in the dictionary, you will find a picture of Kendall Bennett.

Lucky for us, Kendall moved to Chicago last year from Charleston. She landed a job at Art Smith’s Table 52 where she learned about Common Threads. Kendall quickly signed up to volunteer on Wednesdays. We were honored to have her and things kept getting better. Soon she was bringing friends to class and brought fellow employees from Table 52 to help out.

She volunteers each Wednesday at Kennedy King College. It is her day off and she comes to the kitchen to “travel” with the kids. She is fun, strict, easy going and an amazing person for the kids to spend time with. In addition to her Wednesday afternoon commitment to our kids, she volunteers most Fridays at our field trips. We love that she introduces new people to Common Threads. It is priceless.

We are so proud to have Kendall as a volunteer with Common Threads and cannot thank her enough for her commitment to our program.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sakiya Campbell

Sakiya Campbell counts string beans and cauliflower among her favorite veggies, but “there are really too many of the ones I like to name,” she says. “When you try new things, you find out that food that’s good for you, tastes pretty good, too.”

The 11-year-old is the first to admit that she wasn’t always so willing to try new things, and she wasn’t always helpful in the kitchen. But after completing the Common Threads program, she learned about in class for her whole family. These days, Sakiya is comfortable and confident in the kitchen. She loves to steam broccoli and to create garnishes on the plates before serving them.

“She’s come more independent and creative with spices and making her own flavors,” says Sakiya’s mom, Veanca. She’s so engaged in the kitchen. I just love to watch her cook.”

For Sakiya, Common Threads isn’t just about food; it’s also about experiencing different cultures. “In class, you really get to imagine you’re somewhere else you really want to go, and maybe you don’t know about that place, but Common Threads helps you learn all about it.”