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January 4, 2012 / HandsOnCorps

Cooking with Homework Help

The most rewarding element of myVISTAservice with HandsOn Northeast Ohio (NEO) is hosting our weekly Homework Help tutoring program inCleveland’s Ward 5. Every Wednesday evening throughout the school year, a group of fourth and fifth grade students (and occasional third grade cousin or sixth grade holdout from the year past) come to the Garden Valley Neighborhood House for a home cooked meal and a few hours of individual tutoring with some of our best volunteers.

Volunteer tutors do not arrive at the Neighborhood House until just prior to6pm, but the prep work for each week begins two days earlier when I design the menu for that week’s session. Each week features salad, an entrée, a side dish, a dessert, and milk. The next day, I prepare each student’s individual Homework Help Notebook and begin putting together the meal. Before serving with HandsOn NEO, I proudly served along the West Coast with the AmeriCorps NCCC. As part of my team Green 1, I learned to cook on a budget for a large group of very hungry people. Though we generally did not have an oven or stove to cook with, I learned how to piece together filling and satisfying meals for large groups on a tight budget. I learned to improvise pans, ingredients, and cooking methods to yield edible results. I’ve taken that skill and applied it to meal planning for Homework Help.

Thankfully, I have stove (and oven!) access and get to bake in a far more traditional way for these students. I bake before I go to bed. Schlepping the baked goods and uncooked groceries acrossClevelandto my bus stop is always a task and sight to see, but I happily arrive atGardenValleya few hours before the students arrive to cook dinner and finish any last minute preparations.

The first students trickle in at5:30pm. They either play games or (most often) volunteer to set up the tables for tutoring and the tables for dinner. We eat our healthy dinner together. Dinner is when I’m most surprised by these students. In all of my years of working with youth, I’ve never encountered a group that loves spinach, carrots, and celery as much as this group. True, we need an official “Rancher” (a position of great honor) to make sure the students have salad in lieu of ranch soup and I can’t get them to touch beans and chocolate is a hard sell for some kids, but I most always send a kid home with the bag of leftover spinach!

We clean-up our meal and tutoring begins. The students are paired with HandsOn NEO volunteer tutors and begin to work through their Homework Help Notebooks. Working from front to back, the students learn about nutrition and healthy living during with their HandsOn Health Workbook. Every week, the students list what food they ate for breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner as well as one healthy thing they did that day. The meaning of our service hits home when week after week students write that dinner is the only substantial meal they had that day. So while I cannot underplay the value of the tutoring, knowing that the students will not go home hungry that night is the most meaningful element of our program. Knowing that I’m not only sending them home with positive, individual academic attention, but bellies full and (more often than not) arms full of leftovers, is what I’m most proud of.

Laura West

HandsOn Corps VISTA: HandsOn Northeast Ohio

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