Amazing Kid: Teen Teaches Homeless Kids Food Basics With After-School Programs
Catherine Aker may be just 16 years old, but she is wise enough to know that poverty and homelessness can set children up for a lifetime of bad nutrition. Eager to do something to prevent that, she started Stone Soup Kitchen, an after-school program that teaches homeless kids about food through science, art and cooking.
The Medfield, Mass. teen shows kids how to make affordable, healthy meals and reinforces the importance of good food choices, and that's why she is a Build-A-Bear Workshop Huggable Heroes semi-finalist. Now in its seventh year, the program recognizes outstanding kids for their contributions and community service by awarding 10 children a $7,500 scholarship each and another $2,500 to donate to their pet charitable causes. The winners will be announced June 16, at a national press conference.
Aker recently shared her thoughts about homelessness, food, science and nutrition with ParentDish, as well as her plans for the future.
ParentDish: What was your first experience with homelessness?
Catherine Aker: I can't say that I really had much experience with homelessness before coming to the homeless shelter. Until I came face to face with it, I didn't think anything of it. Coming to the shelter completely flipped that impression upside down, and I started thinking about it a lot.
PD: When did you first get the idea of Stone Soup Kitchen? What inspired you?
CA: I worked at the homeless shelter for a long time before the idea actually occurred to me. We had noticed for a while the sort of food the kids were eating, and we would try to do little activities involving nutrition. From there, the idea just snowballed and we started cooking with the children regularly.
PD: Can you tell us a little bit about your program?
CA: We operate inside the homeless shelter, mostly. We usually hold our classes in the dining room, or, if it's really nice out, we go outside sometimes. The number and the ages of the students is very variable. Sometimes we'll have six 10-year-olds and the next week we'll have two toddlers. It's impossible to predict.
PD: Why should we be concerned about homelessness? Do you feel like it has fallen off the national radar?
CA: Homelessness is a lot more complicated than people realize. Most people associate homelessness with a crazy old lady who collects tin cans or something. They don't associate it with people who just can't make ends meet, or children who are trying to live like everybody else when they don't even have a home of their own. Homelessness has definitely fallen off of the national radar because it's so easy to forget that a lot of homeless people aren't that different from you or me. They're just people who've had bad luck and maybe need a little help.
PD: How do cooking, science and art relate to nutrition?
CA: We like to try to mix up the sort of activities we do with the kids, but make them all relate to nutrition in the end. Sometimes we'll give the kids a healthy recipe to try. For science, we do things like learning about germs and why you need to wash your hands when you cook, which isn't strictly speaking nutrition, but is very important to learn. With art, we try to incorporate a theme to go along with the lesson. For example, when we were doing some of the less popular vegetables, like broccoli, we tried to make it fun by making them "dinosaur trees" and then letting the kids color in dinosaurs.
PD: How do you come up with the activities?
CA: For this, I have to thank my mom. She's endlessly creative when it comes to inventing ways to present food. It's probably because I was such a picky eater as a kid. Sometimes the ideas come from the kids themselves, who will suggest what they want to do.
PD: How have your parents influenced your philanthropic spirit and community spirit?
CA: My mom first introduced me to the homeless shelter. She thought it would give me a chance to practice Spanish. In truth, I don't think either of us realized what it would become. We both just thought that we should give back a little, and then it just kept growing.
PD: What advice do you have for kids who want to make a difference in their communities?
CA: For me, it was really surprising watching everything come together, and realizing that, as my plans got bigger, the results grew, too. My advice is never think that that person can't be you. It can. Don't be surprised if it happens.
PD: What do you see in your future?
CA: That's a tricky question. My plans have been bouncing around like crazy recently. As of now, I think I want to be a computer programmer, but as of next week, who knows?
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