From setup to cleanup, Ashley Garrett depends on kids from local schools to fill soup kitchen guests' plates — and hearts.

By Stephanie Emma Pfeffer

Food for Thought

Ashley Garrett had been volunteering at All Souls' Soup Kitchen for five years when she and Laura Schmidt, her daughter Megan's first-grade teacher at the time, decided to get kids involved. "I was dropping Megan off at school, wearing my soup kitchen T-shirt," Ashley remembers. "Laura saw it and told me her first-graders learn about the community by going to a police station and a hospital. Why not visit a soup kitchen too?"

Ashley and Laura came up with tasks that Megan's class could complete over the year, such as setting tables and making dessert for soup kitchen guests. Their collaboration led to the development of a larger program that now, eight years later, has grown to include 13 schools and numerous summer camps.

The soup kitchen serves lunch every Friday to 160 people. Although most are not homeless, many live on unemployment, disability, or pension checks. Some have been guests of the soup kitchen for 10 years. "It's a place for them to see their friends," says Ashley. And since they are often estranged from their families or are childless, they delight in talking to young people. The students savor the relationship as well, asking to work the same tables repeatedly so they can interact with guests they know.

Ashley preps students for volunteering with a slide show, then assigns age-appropriate duties. Kindergartners deliver apples, first-graders make place mats and set tables, and second-graders create centerpieces and sing songs. "The kids slowly get acquainted with the soup kitchen," says Ashley. "Eventually they are comfortable enough to hand out meals."

From fourth grade on kids can be "waiters." Each one, paired with an adult volunteer, serves plates of food, dishes up second helpings, loads take-out containers, and cleans up. All the while, music fills the room — two former guests play the piano and accordion — and kids bop along.

Megan's classmates — the initial group of kids, now eighth-graders — just donated $10,000 to the kitchen from their school carnival. "They still feel connected, even though it's no longer part of the curriculum."

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Originally published in the November 29, 2008, issue of Family Circle magazine.