Teens helping community with local food shelter

By Greg Gelpi

A teen-run food bank in Riverdale turns lives around while turning a helping a hand to those in need.

Troubled teens may find nowhere to turn when they are kicked out of school, but the food bank not only gives them a chance to better themselves, it gives them a chance to better the community.

Hearts to Nourish Hope Food Shelter provides a complete alternative educational program. Teens can take GED and pre-GED classes at the food bank, and in turn they must volunteer to help keep it running.

In so doing, the teens gain a classroom education and real life work experience, while boosting self-esteem.

"I got into trouble with the law, so I had nowhere else to go," Jasmine Mosley, 16, said. "I think it's good that teens are doing it. It shows that even though teens make mistakes, we do some good."

Mosley, who was expelled from school for fighting, has been at the center for five months.

She has made tremendous progress, Debra Swank, director of Hearts to Nourish Hope Food Shelter said.

About 40 to 50 teens participate in the program every month, she said. Another 25 to 30 students are on a waiting list.

Another teen agreed with Mosley.

"It's a nice place to be to get your education," Winston Kendall said. "I like this place."

Swank said the program is cyclical. What the teens learn in the classes helps in the food shelter, and what they learn in the food shelter helps them in class.

"The food pantry is kind of the glue that makes all of our programs come together," Swank said. "It gives them a place to try out their skills in a realistic setting."

The program also includes life skills classes and career development. From calculating inventory to working with customers, teens run the shelter, she said.

"We basically try to help the kids who are falling through the cracks of our school system," Swank said. "A lot of times these kids have a lot of anger and animosity because they don't know how to do something."

Some teens are at the shelter working off court-ordered community service, while others are simply afraid to stay on the streets, she said. Everyone, though, must put in the work.

"We hold everybody accountable," Swank said. "If they don't do the work, then they lose their spot and have to go to the end of the waiting list."

And those who choose to leave the program, without fail, regret their decision, she said.

"There hasn't been a kid who we've had get out of here who didn't call to come back," Swank said.

The teens aren't the only ones benefiting from the program.

For Thanksgiving alone, the shelter gave away more than 125 turkey dinners.

With a $25 donation, the food shelter can purchase food for a family of four for at least three days.

The shelter began feeding about 30 families a month in March 1995. The shelter now feeds about 250 to 300 families a month and as many as 400 families during the holidays.