A steady stream of cars made their way through an otherwise vacant parking lot at St. James Catholic High School earlier this week as students safely delivered a variety of culinary creations to waiting teachers.
“Many of the students haven’t met us or their fellow students in person,” said teacher and unit president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, Wellington, Mark Berardine. “They have been in virtual school all year, so they’ve only seen each other online.”
The students were meeting with Berardine and their teachers Cindy Della Croce and Victoria Nestico from the food and nutrition/culture program at St. James to drop off food they had made for a dinner meal at the Royal City Mission. The class is made up of students from all the city's Catholic high schools.
“They are supplying the side dishes, the salads, the drinks and desserts,” said Berardine. “This is our first time working with actual students this way and we are really looking forward to the relationship.”
Berardine, his wife Maria and many OECTA members have been active in the community for years organizing food drives, meals and other events for groups at the former 40 Baker Street and Drop In Centre as well as active organizations such as the Foodbank, The Bench and the Royal City Mission.
Inviting students from the food and nutrition/culture program to contribute made sense to everyone involved.
“We wanted to kind of infuse food along with learning about our culture and heritage of Guelph,” said Nestico. “When Mark came to talk to our class, he really tied it in a bow. He took the Royal City Mission and tied it in with all the big ideas of our curriculum. What better way to learn about our community than to actually be in the community giving back?”
Berardine recognized the students as an eager and relatively untapped resource for building efforts to feed and support those in need.
“We know that the students are really thrilled about getting to actually bring a meal and do their part,” said Berardine. “Yes they are learning how to serve food and about hospitality but they are also seeing the other side, where there is a need and how people can do things to help.”
Della Croce said the students are excited to take part because they have missed out on other opportunities this year to help in the community.
"This school year, although our students were part of the virtual school community, they did not have the chance to engage in annual school activities like the Thanksgiving Food Drive or contribute to Christmas Hampers,” said Della Croce. “This online Foods class opportunity allows them to bake or create a salad dish and voluntarily serve the Guelph community in a genuine, special way."
It didn’t take much to convince budding chefs such as Grade 12 student Spencer Marsala to get involved and even take on a leadership role with fellow student Aislinn Charlton.
“I have volunteered for stuff like this before,” said Marsala. “I have been following through the winter the situation with COVID and how people have been unable to access healthy food. I feel that any opportunity you can take to help you should take it. Every little bit helps.”
Grade 10 student Charlotte Smillie agreed and considered it a privilege to be involved in the effort.
“I am very lucky to be in a position where I have access to food all the time and I never really think about it,” she said. “I always have dinner on the table with my family but I know that’s not the case with a lot of other families. We have neighbours who don’t have access to food the way they should but we also have the ability to help them.”
The students and teachers coordinated everything online and established a schedule so they could deliver their dishes safely to the school where they were stored in the fridge overnight. Everyone remained masked and safely distanced but were happy to see each other in person. In some case, for the first time.
“I’ve missed interacting with people face to face,” said Grade 12 student Aislinn Charlton. “In most of the classes you rarely get to see anyone. Getting to do this we will actually get to see people and talk to people.”
Charlton helped organize the project even though she said she doesn’t typically take on leadership roles.
“Not usually,” she said. “It has come out more in this past year though. It really depends on the situation I am put in and the people I am working with.”
Berardine hopes the effort will inspire other students and young people to help.
“We hope it lights a flame because you always hear the bad stuff but our students are an amazing beacon of hope in so many ways and they do so many great things,” he said. “We hope this is something that will spin off into more schools getting involved and more hospitality classes.
Toss a pebble and watch the ripples grow out across the pond.”
New OECTA unit president Dave Del Duca said he has seen how the spirit of giving can be infectious.
“It starts off maybe with one teacher at one school and they get a couple friends the next time and it spirals,” he said. “It’s the teacher and the teacher’s family. Then it’s the teacher’s students. We’re just lucky that we have such an incredible network. The union office reaching out to our reps and our friends and their families. It’s a really tight community and I think it is the best way we demonstrate the strength of our network.”
The main course, a pasta dish donated by Lucky Belly was delivered directly to the Royal City Mission Tuesday but for safety reason the students delivered their meals to the school the night before.
“The kids drop everything off at night and get it ready for the next day then we will bring it down,” Berardine. “One thing we are not doing yet is we aren’t actually serving, which our members love to do. We have a flow of 20 to 25 members every single time partake in preparing the meal but when we are actually in the place serving our number sometimes hit 50 volunteers.”
The students regret they can’t serve the food themselves this time.
“Obviously, I would love if we were actually able to meet the people we are helping and hopefully in the future we can do that but like I said I think the theme of this class is making the best out of what we’ve been given,” said Smillie. “So, I think it is still a very meaningful experience.”