Let's Celebrate the Kids Cafe

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Sister Gus’ Kids Cafe. The program opened for the first time on January 10th, 2000. The Kids Cafe, named after Sister Augusta Hamel, OSB, provides an after-school program for children aged 6-17. Sister Augusta re-founded the Second Harvest Food Bank in Erie, PA and was its director for many years. At the Cafe, children receive a meal and homework help, and participate in planned activities. Stephanie Grear is the coordinator of the Kids Cafe. She works with a team that includes five other staff: Ebony, Irvina, LaWauna, Michael, and Danielle. She, along with some of the Kids Cafe staff, offered to share reflections about their experience building relationships with the children who attend.

How long have you worked at the Kids Cafe?
Stephanie: I started working in April 2013. I remember when I first came in. I had responded to a two sentence ad that said something like “Help wanted for an after-school program.” I toured with Ann Vinca, the former director, the much-loved woman that she is. But I didn’t know if I had it in me to take the job with teenage kids and their behaviors. The first day, the children protested because they wanted Mrs. Vinca back. Over the years, though, I have seen so much growth in the children. I believe that it is our presence that helps children build character and grow.

Ebony: I have worked here for 10-11 years. My sister worked here when Ann Vinca was the director, and I had always done daycare work. I had been in trouble, and Ann said to me, “I believe in second chances.”

Irvina: I started working here about a decade ago when Ann Vinca was the director.

Mike: I have been working here for about two years. I used to attend the Kids Cafe when I was younger, so I knew the people here.

How many children do you serve at the Kids Cafe? What activities do you provide?
Stephanie: We usually have about 50-75 children attend each day. Seventy-five children is a sizable number with five staff because we’re a facility that not’s hand-off. We want the children who attend to be loved and feel safe and nourished, physically and emotionally.

Ebony: Three days a week we offer dance to different age groups. It ranges in style from hip-hop to jazz. The kids like this program because they are learning something new. It’s giving them special one-on-one attention compared to being in a big group. Kids like that kind of time.

Irvina: I work in the game room with the kids, playing games like basketball. We also have a foosball table, and I supervise that as well. The kids are learning through their experiences the importance of practice and paying attention to rules.

Mike: I also work in the game room with the kids and take them to gym. It is a good job for me because I like sports myself, and I have a lot of energy.

LaWauna: I am usually the first person here each day, coming into to prepare the daily meal. I serve anything that you might fix at home. Today we are having chicken sandwiches and tortellini soup. We always serve vegetables with ranch dressing, too.

What is a favorite memory of your time working here?

Stephanie: Overall, my favorite time is the Christmas store with the children. We work so hard and take so many donations to create a store where the children can come to choose gifts for themselves and for their family. The staff take their own time to shop for items for the store on Black Friday, of all days. They shop with specific children in mind, and then we bring it all together. The preparation can get crazy, but then the day comes, and it’s so wonderful.

I also love the annual field trip to Splash Lagoon. I remember one child sitting on the bus, and she thought we had gone out of town; she had never been that far from home before.

Ebony: My favorite memory is of one of our participants, Jamis. He was hyperactive, and he was something different. He was so excited one day when his brother got out of prison that he brought this big bag of candy from the Dollar Store, and he gave a bag to everyone.

LaWauna: My favorite part of working here that is that we have kids who think they are in a restaurant when they eat here. They come up to tell me that the food is good and that they appreciate it. It makes my day better. On the fourth Thursday of every month, we also celebrate the birthdays of the children. All the kids get cupcakes and ice cream. We sing to each of the kids who are celebrating.

If someone wanted to volunteer at the KC, what might that look like?
Stephanie: There’s a couple different volunteer opportunities: in the kitchen you can help with meal preparation and service of meals. You can come and help to clean the space for a few hours, or we also like to have readers who can come in to read with children who are struggling. We also take volunteers who are doing special projects. If a volunteer wants to do a one-time project such as making blankets if you like to sew. We want to expose the children to as many experiences as we can.

What is one thing you would want the community to know about the KC?
Stephanie: Some might see the kids here as problematic, but they haven’t been in their shoes and had their experiences. I want people to know that if they give children, even the children who come to the Kids Cafe, time and attention they will flourish.

Mike: This is a loving place where we treat everyone the same. We try to give everyone the same attention. It’s like a home.

LaWauna: Well, there’s a lot of love going around for the children here. We treat them with love, and they want to come. We try to make it special and teach them that food is important. I am glad that we offer this space for the children.

Do you have a donation wish list?
Stephanie: Individual pencil sharpeners, school supplies, snacks, deodorant, or school uniform items are all very helpful items to have here.

Thank you, all, for sharing your insights!

The Kids Cafe Mission Statement

The Kids Cafe is a very special place. It is not designed simply to sustain a child’s body in the midst of financial poverty. Its mission is to nourish a child’s heart and mind, as well. They will eat here, play here, work here and learn here.

At the Kids Cafe we promise to give a child the love and hugs that develop a healthy emotional life.

At the Kids Cafe we intend to provide the sport and games and play that build a child’s body and encourage a wholesome life.

At the Kids Cafe we will serve the kind of good and wholesome food that grows a child’s mind. Most of all, we will serve it with the kind of dignity and in the kind of family atmosphere that gives quality to every human life.

We will give freedom and require responsibility; we will serve children but we will also enable their participation in the process; we will feed their bodies and guide their minds; we will encourage their creativity and monitor their learning.

At the Kids Cafe we will get to know every child and take them into our lives so that their own may be less lonely, less barren, less ignored.

We are here to build a better city by building the next generation. We are here because each of them is a child of God and so a child of ours.

(Photo: Front row L-R: Stephanie, coordinator; LaWauna; Ebony; Back row L-R: Mike, Irvina)