You might think that growing and cooking with fresh vegetables sounds like something many young people would avoid. But for Thalia, a young woman who sought YouthCare’s support at age 16, this opportunity was life-changing. Though her love of cooking flourished during her time as a kitchen intern at YouthCare’s James W. Ray Orion Center, the seeds were planted from her first days with us.

It started when Gabe, Thalia’s case manager at YouthCare’s Adolescent Emergency Shelter, asked what she wanted for her birthday dinner. For many of the youth we serve, birthdays and holidays with us may be the first time in a long time that they’ve been celebrated and have gotten to feel special. Thalia wanted to do more than just eat a delicious meal; she wanted to learn how to make it herself. So Gabe taught her to make “fancy spaghetti,” as Thalia calls it, which includes a sauce made from scratch and bursting with veggies. For dessert, she wanted brownies with ice cream. It was truly a birthday to remember.

Staff member Laurel also encouraged Thalia’s interest in food by inviting Thalia to bake with her. While baking, they talked about whatever Thalia wanted. “She introduced me to The Joy of Cooking. She always listened when I wanted to talk.” Thalia, like so many of the young people YouthCare works with, found it was easier to talk about her hopes, fears, and needs when engaged in a hands-on activity. This is why crucial conversations often take place over a meal, a game of pool in the drop-in center, or during arts and crafts night in a program.

In addition to supporting her interest in cooking and food, staff also served as role models for Thalia. She particularly remembers Bryce, who was going to school while working full-time at YouthCare. “He was very inspirational. It’s interesting to see someone doing well at their job while going to school. It made me think ‘wow, maybe I can do that too.’” Being inspired by Bryce is one of the factors that led Thalia to seek out internship opportunities at Orion, and later, to go to college.

Thalia was hired as a kitchen intern at the Orion Center, where she learned how to care for a plot at a nearby community garden and how to prepare meals with its abundant produce. This and other internship programs at Orion help youth build skills and earn wages while preparing them for self-sufficiency after leaving YouthCare. Thalia had a hard time eating nutritious meals when she was stressed out, but preparing meals for other youth helped her to care for herself and those also receiving support at Orion. Thalia saw this same joy reflected in volunteers who serve meals at Orion. “They are caring people,” Thalia says of the volunteer groups who serve lunches and dinners daily at Orion. “Food can bring people together. The meals they cook are made with love.”

From there, Thalia’s passion for health and nutrition blossomed. With a passion for science, Thalia is now studying public health at the University of Washington. As she pulls out a sheet where she’s listed all her goals, it’s clear she has big plans. While she’s still figuring out exactly what career path she’ll pursue, she knows it will involve improving community health.

As much as Thalia’s life was shaped by the staff she encountered at YouthCare, she also had an impact on people like Gabe, Bryce, and Laurel. Laurel reflects, “Thalia is a very resilient, patient, and brilliant young woman. She came by to visit a couple of weeks ago and showed me pictures of her new apartment and told me about how she is graduating from the UW. It is always a joy to see her doing so well. It reminds me of why I do this work, and gives me hope for other youth.”

As she steps out into the world, with the self-confidence and support to navigate school, work, and career choices (not to mention a recipe for fancy spaghetti in her back pocket for special occasions), Thalia knows that she’s put down roots at YouthCare.

“I email Laurel sometimes; she gets back to me really quick,” she says, beaming. “They all still care about me.”