Volunteering is already a rewarding experience, but a home-cooked meal and camaraderie can make it slightly more enjoyable than your standard park cleanup.
Student volunteers in the Good Eats program at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., come together with members of the city’s ARC community — “Advocacy, Resources and Choices” for those with developmental disabilities — to cook fresh, healthy meals and enjoy each other’s company. The program is run by Kaitlyn Suarez, a sophomore geology major at Union.
“I come from a Greek family and my whole life, I grew up with a large family and food, and I was always in the kitchen wanting to help and prepare — that’s where all the commotion was going on. I’ve always had a passion for food,” Suarez said, 20, originally from Wading River, N.Y. “When I heard about the program, it hit home for me. I’m especially interested in healthy foods and healthy living and being active.”
Two to four times a semester, six to seven Schenectady ARC guests visit the Minerva houses at Union College (special residence halls with a full kitchen and living room to complete the homey vibe) with eight to 12 student volunteers to work “side by side and (they) make the whole entire meal from start to scratch,” Suarez said, who makes a point not to do any prep work before the cooking sessions. The Good Eats guests do almost all of the preparation and cooking, while the student volunteers monitor safety and make sure foods such as chicken are properly cooked.
“It’s a hands-on learning experience from menu-planning to making meals and general techniques and health tips for cooking,” she said. “Many of the participants who come have never been able to use knives or cook or have the general freedom in the kitchen.”
Previous dishes include vegetable pizza, stir fry, chicken pasta primavera and lasagna, with desserts of fruits, yogurts and sorbets. Throughout the evening, Suarez gives tips and stresses the importance of local foods, whole grains, brown rice and whole-wheat products.
After the meals are done, “everyone sits down together, we eat and talk about the week and what’s going on, and it’s just like at home,” Suarez said. “And then it’s so nice for the students to have essentially home-cooked meals during school.”
Suarez spearheaded Good Eats at Union as a freshman after an email from the dean’s office sought student leaders to start the program. On top of doing all the organizing she does for Good Eats — shopping for the food, preparing the meal plans, rounding up the volunteers — Suarez also finds time for other activities such as Colleges Against Cancer, the environmental club and Octopus’ Garden. Oh yeah — she’s a finalist for 2013 National STUDENT-Athlete Day Giant Steps Awards, too, for her performance on the cross country and track and field teams. How does she balance it all?
“It’s definitely hard. It’s long nights, but it’s so gratifying. And everything that I do, it just keeps me going,” she said. “The program is unbelievable — so many people appreciate it and I know that when they’re living in the homes, they’re seeing the same faces and for them to come here … they get to see their friends that they may not see every day, and we get to get together as students here, so we see our friends. And we spend two hours together, relaxing cooking, talking about our weeks before we have to head back to school and do work.”
Suarez’s medical history also makes this program all the more meaningful. During high school she faced Hodgkin’s lymphoma three times and underwent a bone marrow transplant to beat the disease. Suarez is now cancer free.
“I spent a lot of time in hospitals when I was getting treatment. And I know for me, being in a hospital, when somebody came and there was an event that happened, it made my entire week and changed the course of my day,” Suarez said.
“I can imagine that living in a home for most of their lives, is kind of the same way when there’s something new that’s different and exciting. … I can just feel and imagine how much fun and deeply appreciative they are of being able to come to Union with college students and be able to spend the evening with us,” she said. “As small as it may be for us, I know that it’s a really big and powerful impact for them. And I’m sure it’s what they look forward to all week, which is an unbelievable feeling to give that to somebody.”
This article is part of USA TODAY College’s Spotlight Series, which features student bands, campus organizations, student entrepreneurs and start-ups, student-run media, student artists and any other students doing cool, admirable and proactive things. If you’d like to nominate a student or an organization, please submit here.