The kiddos of Kids Cafe!
The kiddos of Kids Cafe!

By Tina Dirmann

staff writer for BCBS of Louisiana Foundation

I met 9-year-old Ayomid Adu yesterday as she twirled a pack of cheese and crackers across a cafeteria table top. Moments earlier, she was engaged in some serious girl talk time with pals as everyone awaited a warm afternoon meal. I interrupted them to talk about Kids Cafe, the new afterschool program in Winnfield, Louisiana.

“There used to be nothing to do after school,” Adu said. “I would just go home and do homework by myself and watch TV. But here, they let us play, they give us snacks, they help us with our homework. My favorite part is playing air hockey. I never played that before!”

Her face lights up with a smile. Yeah, that’s a happy kid.

Adu shows off her snack pack of crackers!

It took a bit for our partners with the Central Louisiana Local Foods Initiative (supported in part through a grant from our Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana program) to get the program rolling. We’ve been waiting just over a year to see Kids Cafe come to life. It finally kicked off last month with an open house that introduced parents, and kids, to the after school support program now running four days a week.

The facility is a new building, in fact, initially built to house a new Boys and Girls Club outlet.

Adu shows off her snack pack of crackers!
Adu shows off her snack pack of crackers!

“But that program never started,” said Linda Hutson, director of development and community relations for the Food Bank of Central Louisiana, which runs the Kids Café project. “That was three years ago. This building has been sitting empty ever since. So we have a deal with the Winnfield Housing Authority to pay the water and utilities and they let us use the building.”

Hutson said it also took time to put other pieces in place – like finding a chef to cook healthy meals for the kids, finding the right tutors to help with homework, and someone else to oversee the progam day to day.

But since their doors opened, some 35 mothers and fathers signed up for Kids Café’s help. The program costs nothing – parents just fill out an application and promise to participate. Really participate.

“We didn’t want people who would just show up once in awhile. We want to work with people who really want to be a part of this,” Hutson said.

But so far, that appears to be a no-brainer.

“There aren’t a lot of after school or child care programs in this area,” said Hutson, noting that most of the kids come from lower income homes and single parent families, where funds are always scarce. “Let alone programs that are free. So instead of going home alone, the kids can come here. An important part of all that we off is that this is a place to come that’s safe.”

And a place to get a little much-appreciated attention, clearly! When I was there, kids clamored for praise from adults in the room. Shouts of “look at me, look at me” were non-stop. One girl showed-off twirling about a half-dozen Hula Hoops at once. Another little guy tried a basketball long shot. And still another girl insisted we watch her skip rope on one foot.  “See what I can do,” they took turns bragging.

“These kids are so excited to be here,” Hutson said. “And they are so affectionate. The first time I came in here they all wanted to come by and hug me around the neck. It’s all about giving them that little bit of extra attention they crave.”

Each day, the kids roll in at 3:30 pm, armed with book bags, and sit at large table to do a little studying. Even if they claim to have no homework, kids have to pull out a book to read or vocabulary words to study. The tutors hover above, offering help when needed.

“Mostly it’s math they want help with,” said tutor Lauren Conley. “Everyone I help, it’s math.”

“I can see so many kids just blossoming here,” added tutor Margaret Hollingsworth. “And by the time they go home, they’ve  done their homework and they’ve been fed. So the parents coming home from work don’t have to stress out trying to get it all done. They can just focus on quality family time.”

Chef serves up a fresh batch of veggie and beef stew!

Chef serves up a fresh batch of veggie and beef stew!
Chef serves up a fresh batch of veggie and beef stew!

And in the backdrop of it all? The hearty aroma of a made from scratch batch of beef and vegetable stew. Chef Alex McKinney says getting the kids to eat healthy is a tough challenge.

“These kids, they love junk food,” McKinney said. “Stuff like fish sticks and macaroni and cheese. But I try my best. One day, I came here and slaved over a pot of chicken noodle soup. And when they saw it, they were like, ‘Uh, soup…’ “

McKinney is looking forward to the next step in the program, when Kids Café staffers kick-off an outdoor vegetable garden. The kids will be responsible for planting and caring for the garden patch, harvesting the produce, and handing it over to chef for the afternoon meal.

And while they may not like every meal, every time, most are trying the new veggies and fruits showing up on their plates.

“We try to provide healthy meals, but also meals that the kids will actually eat,” Hutson said. “We want to give kids a strong environment now, when they are in elementary school, so as they move on, they are better equipped to do better for themselves. And hopefully, they don’t end up becoming our (food bank) clients some day.”

And already there are small successes to be celebrated. For instance, parents report that homework and test grades are already up. And, believe it or not, Adu admitted she loves the made from scratch lemonade served at the café. And her other favorite?

“The chicken noodle soup,” she said. “I liked that.”

There you go, chef! Apparently you have more fans than you realize.