Chicago — Editor's note: "Reconciliation in Chicago" is NCRonline's newest blog series, a weekly blog from the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, a ministry of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood based in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood. Each post will feature hopeful reflections from the ministry's staff and volunteers, as they share their stories about working with youth and families affected by violence and incarceration. As we kick off "Reconciliation in Chicago," blog series "Take and Read" will be on a summer hiatus.
"Reconciliation in Chicago" will be published every Monday at the feature series page Reconciliation in Chicago.
The Back of the Yards neighborhood, located in the South Side of Chicago, is a community that suffers from high unemployment and a lack of adequate resources, including education and mental health services. Like so many communities that are suffer economic inequities, young people often grow up in the midst of violence and trauma.
Located within Back of the Yards, Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation operates out of a building that houses both Precious Blood Center and Second Chance, a Chicago Public School alternative school. When you walk into the center on a Saturday morning, you are met with the smells and sounds of a busy kitchen. Each Saturday morning nine youth, sporting hairnets and aprons, gather to combine ingredients that will become a feast fit for kings. They listen carefully to the instructions of La'Vern Russell -- who goes by "Chef Tony" -- amidst the clanging of bowls and pans, each one busily stirring or sautéing, cutting or mixing as the day's menu takes shape.
Russell leads the ten-week culinary arts program, and was referred to us by the Cook County probation department.
The culinary arts program just finished in May with a grand celebration -- a feast of harvest salad, rotisserie chicken, sautéed string beans, rice pilaf and, of course, cheesecake. Families, neighbors, probation officers, and our local juvenile judge gathered as the Precious Blood Center was transformed into a banquet hall.
I remember well, when my family visited my grandparents, the small kitchen became the gathering place. Now, on Saturday late morning and early afternoon, the most popular place in the neighborhood has been the kitchen area of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation's Precious Blood Center. The day usually starts with a young person inquiring about the day's menu, "Hey Chef, what are we cooking today?" After the menu is described, they unpack groceries, don hairnets, secure their aprons, and scrub and sanitize their hands. Then the transformation begins.
Amidst the violence and the chaos that claims the lives of so many youth, to watch the laughter mixed with the intensity of cutting up a full chicken -- you can't help but recognize that these young men long for a caring and guiding adult. You begin to understand that the real value isn't just learning skills in the kitchen, but learning life lessons. It is not just good cooking, but it is good relationships. Russell, who is African-American, is not just a culinary arts instructor, he is a mentor and a life coach. The youth lack adult role models in the community, so along with providing the instructions on how to slice and dice, Russell helps them understand what it means to move into adulthood as a young man. He constantly reinforces that they are important and talented.
"Pay attention," he'll remind them, "this is important." He will drive home the point that keeping a clean kitchen and taking care of the utensils is just as important as the ingredients. In between his cooking instructions, he engages the young men in other life skills. Youth learn to work together as a team in order to plan, prepare, and complete a full meal. They learn the importance of showing up on time, ready to work, and with a good attitude that can translate to any work environment.
Now, with this session over, interest is high and hope is alive; one of the youth goes on an interview with a restaurant a short distance from here. Another youth ponders going to culinary school, and still another wonders what it would take to open his own restaurant.
Precious Blood Sr. Donna Liette has asked Russell and the youth to cook up some goodies for the upcoming fundraiser.
I am already looking forward to the next session of culinary arts.
[Precious Blood Fr. David Kelly is executive director of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation.]
A version of this blog previously appeared on the website of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation. NCRonline presents the blog in collaboration with Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation.