Ask people what dishes they think of when they think of feeding the homeless and you’ll most likely get responses like casserole, meatloaf and pasta. It’s understandable – these are all comfort foods and relatively easy to prepare (and it’s true, our kids love them!). But ask that question to one of the most popular volunteer cooks at the James W. Ray Orion Center, Pranee Khruasanit Halvorsen, and she’ll tell you pad thai and lemongrass chicken.
Since Thanksgiving 2011, Pranee has been offering up her prodigious culinary skills to the young people at the Orion Center. She certainly has a lot to offer: as the owner of I Love Thai Cooking, she teaches Thai cooking techniques to individuals and groups from Seattle to Bangkok. Though her first love is teaching, she finds volunteering at YouthCare helps her give back to the community and to connect with teenagers in crisis.
“I just love to cook for teenagers,” she says. “They love food, their bodies need food, [and] it’s easy to connect with them with food.” She recognizes that meals at the Orion Center are not just about meeting an immediate need for sustenance: they are often the first step towards showing a young person that he or she is still part of our community. “It’s important to me to help the teens that we share the community with.”
Pranee is inspired by a Buddhist teaching that says, “Hunger is the greatest disease,” and strives to make her meals an opportunity for youth to connect with each other and with staff over food. She stresses flexible meals that allow youth to have options and make choices – for young people with little control over the circumstances of their lives, the chance to choose rice instead of noodles means a great deal. She experiments – sometimes making four different cakes for dessert to see which will be the biggest hit. “I love cake!” she says with a laugh. “And, I learn a lot by being creative and having fun with it!”
Of course, you don’t need to be a professional to prepare and serve a meal at YouthCare – whether your specialty is sloppy joes or swimming rama, your volunteer meal group can make a difference to the young people we serve. We’ve even got a meal group guide (pdf) that suggests portion sizes and recipe ideas, and a YouthCare staff person will be there to help – everything you need to get started!