|St. Cecilia Academy senior Piersen Briggs, top photo, helps a young girl prepare black bean lasagna. Briggs and several of her classmates at St. Cecilia used a social justice grant from the National Catholic Education Association to organize a cooking class that included information about the importance of a nutritious diet, that was held at Saint Thomas Health Clinic South.
How do you develop a school lesson that combines service, nutrition, science, math, Spanish, and health and wellness? Apparently, you leave it in the hands of St. Cecilia Academy seniors and their religion teacher, Sister Amelia, O.P.
On Dec. 5, armed with grant dollars from the National Catholic Education Association, a recipe and 25 portions of pasta, tomato sauce, cottage cheese, parmesan cheese, eggs and black beans, Sister Amelia and her students converged on the Saint Thomas Health Clinic South to teach Hispanic families how to cook a healthy, inexpensive meal.
But this nutritious tale begins several months ago, when the National Catholic Education Association promoted a social justice grant with the theme of building community, using the Catholic social teaching principle of subsidiarity. In simpler terms, those who exist in a community should be able to help their neighbors.
“I had spent some time working for a clinic with low-income families, where we realized that they weren’t able to afford proper protein sources,” said Sister Amelia. “So, black bean lasagna was a popular thing for us to recommend. And knowing our girls here at St. Cecilia Academy, I knew that if we got this grant they would jump at the opportunity to interpret that principle of community building as an outreach.”
Sister Amelia was also counting on some of the seniors who were accomplished Spanish speakers, and the resources of the school’s strong science department, hoping to add an academic component to the service experience.
For senior Piersen Briggs – ultimately the lead cook all it took was mentioning the fact that the students would be helping Hispanic families with young children. “I was interested because I heard there were going to be kids there,” said Piersen. “And I love kids!”
The grant proposal accepted, and with six of Piersen’s peers recruited, the team began holding planning meetings and conducting research. Piersen cooked a sample of black bean lasagna and brought it in to be taste tested by the culinary crew. “It was a hit,” said Caroline O’Neill. “I had three servings!”
The girls divvied up the responsibilities. O’Neill, Hailee Crawford and Madison Hall were the nutritionists, charged with presenting the facts about protein and its health benefits to the families, as well as informing them about purchasing healthy food on a tight budget. “We wanted to let them know why it’s necessary for them to have protein, and also that they can get good proteins without having to spend a lot of money,” O’Neill said.
|The St. Cecilia students, bottom photo, pose with one of the families that attended the class.
Margaret Pyburn and Coach Bryan Picklesimer, St. Cecilia’s health and wellness instructors, sat in on the first couple of meetings to ensure the girls were on the right track, and that their research findings were scientifically sound.
“I’m personally in AP Science courses, and I went back through my notes from my classes, and tried to include the scientific perspective on how protein helps the body function, especially when you think about families in the more impoverished communities,” Crawford said. “They’re working a lot to make ends meet, and to have the energy to do that work, you need to have the correct nutrition. I viewed my role as a bringer of information so that the families could take it and run with it in their everyday lives.”
Anabel Strianse along with Katherine Burns, was entrusted with gathering multiple healthy recipes and designing a cookbook to leave with the families. “After doing some research on good protein dishes, like oatmeal with peanut butter, I tried to find recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even snacks,” recalled Strianse. “There were about 20 recipes by the time it was said and done.”
The last key player was Catherine Morgan, whose role was to translate the cookbook text and other materials into Spanish, and to be the primary translator the day of the event. All seven girls planned to be present, to help out in a variety of ways.
Strianse and O’Neill went shopping for ingredients and supplies on an established budget. “We spent a good amount of time scoping out the best prices,” Strianse said. “We did very well, and had $130 left over! We planned for buying for 25 families, so we got 25 of everything, except for a few condiments that they could share.”
Getting the families to attend the evening cooking class might have been a significant hurdle, if not for the staff at Saint Thomas Clinic South. “Their nurse manager, Cindy, and one of their doctors, Sister Mary Diana, O.P. opened the doors this summer when the grant came through,” said Sister Amelia. “They said, ‘Yes, you may use our kitchen,’ and, ‘Yes, we’ll ask our clients to come.’ So I made a little flyer, and we posted it, and then families signed up, and we did reminder phone calls. It was that simple.”
Despite weeks of preparation, the evening began with a rough start. Rainy weather and the poor driving directions frazzled the students’ nerves, which were a bit on edge already with the prospect of having to communicate in Spanish with native speakers.
O’Neill, Crawford and Hall were first on the agenda, setting the stage by giving a PowerPoint presentation called, “The Three Ps: Protein, Proportions and Price,” in Spanish. “I don’t think any of us were expecting to be nervous, because in the St. Cecilia community, we’re at the top of the totem pole,” O’Neill said. “And I’m pretty confident presenting in front of people.”
Fortunately, the initial jitters were calmed almost immediately by the warm reception from, and easy interactions with, the families, who seemed to appreciate what the students had to offer and their valiant attempts to get the language right. And, despite the differences between the cultures, the students were pleasantly surprised to find so much common ground in conversation topics, and even in life experiences.
Although just six families attended, that small number represented numerous family members, and thankfully for Briggs, lots of kids. “We had two 7-year-olds who were very vivacious!” said Briggs. “They wanted to help us cook. We showed them what to do, so that way they could help their families when everybody got home.”
For Sister Amelia, who tried her hardest to let the students run the show completely by themselves, it was an evening filled with proud moments, extreme gratitude and expectations realized. “It was a pure joy to watch the girls’ willingness to humble themselves, because it is terrifying actually, to go into an environment where you’re not a native speaker, and to say you have something to offer,” said Sister Amelia. “You have to receive their mercy first, and receive their goodness. The way the St. Cecilia girls cared for the children, and were so attentive in carrying groceries to the cars – the things that I didn’t make a sign up list for! It was beautiful.
“I knew that it would change hearts, and it did that,” continued Sister Amelia. “I think every time you encounter your neighbor you love Jesus in a deeper way. I think our students brought the Lord to these beautiful families, and they brought Him to us.”