Everyday Heroes: CardsCook for homeless youth

On Wednesday afternoons in the kitchen at St. Stephens Episcopal Parish in Southwest Portland, it's a flurry of activity as teenagers make meals for homeless youth. (KATU Photo)

This week's Everyday Heroes are members of a unique high school club that's helping build community among homeless youth in Portland, and working on bigger things.

CardsCook is an official club at Lincoln High School in Southwest Portland. Members prepare a hot dinner every Wednesday evening for the Portland area's homeless youth. It's the brainchild of Lincoln junior Hank Sanders, and he's been able to get a wide variety of student, school and community partners to make it a success.

"Lincoln High School has a reputation for being a school of wealthy and privileged students, but all around us we're dealing with homelessness," says Sanders, during a break from the kitchen on a cold early spring afternoon outside the St. Stephens Episcopal Parish, where the Wednesday meal is served at an event known as "The Underground."

"We have this Culinary Arts program; it's well-known around the community," says Sanders. "We were cooking food for ourselves, pastries and cakes, and we thought we could give back to our community. So we created CardsCook as a way for students to use their skills in the kitchen to branch out and help the community around us."

Under the tutelage of Culinary Arts instructor Candace Anderson, Sanders and some friends started CardsCook early in their sophomore years. Now approaching the end of their junior year, they've been cooking weekly meals for more than a year.

Every week, the Oregon Food Bank sends CardsCook a list of food that'll be delivered to Clay Street Table at St. Stephens. A sample list might include whole fryers, canned and fresh fruit, desserts, salad fixings, whatever is available. Sometimes that means they get a load of odd things. Like the time they got some dragon fruit. Everybody was really excited and loved looking at it, but Sanders says they were afraid to eat it.

Teenagers can be picky eaters. And that's one thing that resonates with CardsCook; it's teenagers menu-planning and cooking for other teenagers. They know what's good, what'll be popular, what'll get the kids they're serving to come back for seconds.

"The very first meal that I attended we made grilled cheese," says Lincoln junior Daniil Abbruzzese, a CardsCook club member. "The nice thing about what we did is I'll eat the food myself. Like, it's good enough to where I'll eat it. I really like the food."

But grilled cheese is at the more-basic end of the food spectrum at CardsCook.

"We want it to be a good experience; so one time we've done a ton of big calzones," says junior Alex Paskill. "That was pretty fun. (And) we did a really good stir fry."

A lot of the meal planning is the responsibility of Elliot Balmer, another Lincoln High School junior. His fellow CardsCook members clearly respect his chops in the kitchen.

"Elliot's done a really good job of doing that, through seeing what the Food Bank is giving us and trying to make something fun to eat and good to eat," says Paskill.

The day KATU News visited Clay Street Table, the CardsCook team was making barbecued chicken sandwiches, potato salad and fruit salad. A half-dozen kids surrounded a prep table in the St. Stephens Parish kitchen, shredding meat from 24 baked chickens. Two other students were at another counter, cutting up gallons of fruit salad.

The work was all being done under the skilled and watchful eye of Bob Brimmer, a young man who lives in the Hazelnut Grove homeless village in North Portland. Elliot gives Brimmer a lot of credit for getting so much prep work done for the Wednesday meal while the CardsCook team are still in class.

"Bob is an exceptional chef," says Balmer.

The students say Brimmer's take-charge attitude helps keep the machine humming along.

While all the action was going on in the kitchen, the big dining room was bustling with homeless kids and young adults who were taking turns shooting zombies on the Xbox 360, playing Magic the Gathering, and talking and joking over cups of hot coffee. It seemed friendly and dynamic, and there was a sense that those homeless youth are proud and protective of this meal, and this day, that's all for them.

"We want to be there for them, not just for the food," says Paskill. "Obviously, it's a struggle to get this food, and it's not the ideal life, but there's a big part of it that goes into feeling like there's somebody there, and you have a community, something you're proud of."

"Sometimes the meal's done, it's in the oven, it's on the stove, and only two people need to worry about it," Sanders explains. "In which case everybody else is out playing cards or talking to people. We all eat the meal ourselves."

The CardsCook team put their schooling to work, not just in the kitchen, but in the planning, too. Early on in the experience, they discovered they were cooking too much food. Waste was an issue. So they got scientific.

"If we're gonna do this, we want to use the food efficiently, and we don't want anything to go to waste," says Paskill.

They used a database of attendance and outside temperature for their last 50 Wednesdays, and created a basic algorithm using those numbers. They found the outside temp correlated pretty well with attendance. On extremely hot or cold days, they served more meals.

"It's proven to be pretty accurate," says Paskill.

Most Wednesdays, CardsCook will serve 200 to 300 meals. They've served as many as 500. And they say it's a lot like a restaurant, with waves of youth arriving for the first serving, more coming an hour later, and a last surge of kids showing up around 7:30, before all the food is gone.

"The thing we try to do with the menu is make food that is healthy, that people will eat, and also that we can make on a mass scale," says Sanders.

And they're trying to do much more than that, too. They've created an all-student-run incubator that's raising money to fund common-sense solutions to Portland's homeless crisis. The Homeless Solution Incubator has raised almost $10,000, including grants from The Oregon Food Bank, that they'll distribute after a huge feast they're planning for the end of April. After that, it'll be senior year, and they're hoping the legacy they've created will be picked up and embraced by the next wave of Lincoln High students.

"It's not as much about what you're doing, it's the lasting impact you leave," says Paskill, "because that's the real change. If we come in here and for two years we cook great food for these people and they feel like they have this community, and then we leave and there's nothing left, then what did we really do?"

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off