“For whatever reason, the mothers of these young men aren’t able to do mom stuff for them right now. But I can. And maybe someday someone will do the same thing for Joey.” ~Sandy Swenson
The Junior Woman’s Club of Chevy Chase (JWCCC), of which she’s [Sandy] a member, was involved in fundraising for the Greentree Adolescent Program (GAP) at The National Center for Children and Families, a nonprofit in Bethesda. In the spring of 2011, Swenson proposed a more hands-on commitment to the at-risk teens who spend a year in the community.
Since some of the 20 youths would be moving on to independent living, why not teach them to cook for themselves, she asked.
Her idea evolved into Bistro BoyZ, which will soon begin its third year. Each week, a group of five volunteers and five teens shops for ingredients at a local Giant supermarket, sticking to a $35 budget. The next night, they prepare and eat a meal together.
Some of Swenson’s happiest memories are of the times she and her sons spent in the kitchen, mixing up muffins or spreading frosting. In later years, she recalls, her kitchen was often filled with teenagers “rubbing elbows and laughing.”
On a recent evening in a small dorm kitchen at GAP, a fair amount of elbow-rubbing and laughing was taking place as Swenson and her cohorts (known as the GalZ), showed three hungry teens how to cook a steak dinner. The boys had planned a feast that included baked potatoes with cheese and sour cream, hot crescent rolls with butter, oven s’mores and ice cream, lemonade, a savory wine sauce for the steak.
Everything was going smoothly until three George Foreman grills and a microwave running simultaneously blew a fuse. But once the lights were restored, everyone sat down at a long table groaning with food, and eventually the conversation turned to the next meal. One teen reminisced about his grandmother’s adobo sauce, and Swenson promised to hunt down a recipe.
Vivacious and maternal, she was clearly in her element among the young men, one of whom told her recently, “Wow, this is just like eating dinner with a family.”
Although she knows little about their lives, she’s aware that many of the youths have grown up in deprived and difficult circumstances.The teens who are referred to GAP by the state Department of Juvenile Services and the D.C. Department of Human Services all show potential to benefit from an intensive residential program that includes counseling, anger management, coping skills and substance abuse prevention. They also attend Bethesda public schools, where their classmates are often unaware that they live in a group home.
One reason Bistro BoyZ has been such a hit with the teens is the connection it creates to the community, says GAP Program Director Roberta Rinker. “It is incredible for the boys to experience members of the local community caring for them as our staff does, and doing it as volunteers,” she says.
Swenson often thinks about the contrast between her sons’ upbringing and the far more precarious childhoods of the Bistro BoyZ. “I look at these boys who’ve had far, far more difficult circumstances than Joey had, and my son is the one who’s homeless and a drug addict, and these kids are plugging away,” she says.
But perhaps some Florida volunteer will do for Joey what she could not, maybe say or do “some little thing” that sets his life on a better course.
One “little thing” the GalZ do for the Bistro BoyZ as they’re leaving GAP is to give them a large plastic storage box containing a George Foreman grill, pots and pans, dish soap, cooking utensils and seasonings.
“Now they know how to use these things,” Swenson says. “Maybe at some point they’ll see the grill or the pot or the pan and they’ll think back and say, ‘Oh, yeah, there were those ladies who gave me that, who cared enough to spend some time with me.’
“Maybe it will make a difference when they hit another rough patch.”
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