First Posted: 12/17/2014

EDWARDSVILLE — One by one, they gather near a back table in a corner of Ollie’s Restaurant and make preparations. They strap on their aprons and put on their latex gloves, while simultaneously exchanging afternoon pleasantries. For them, “it’s their social hour for the week,’’ according to Edna Tevet, co-owner of the restaurant. Alongside their table sits a serving cart with containers of fresh fruit, lettuce and cherry tomatoes and prepared ingredients for a hot meal, including pasta, spaghetti sauce, meatballs and chicken.

The elongated table and these thrice-weekly helpers are as much an assembly line as a group of friends who volunteer together as a lifeline for the Dinners for Kids program that delivers six free meals weekly to school-aged children in the West Side communities of the Wyoming Valley West School District. Together, they package the food in Styrofoam and microwave-safe containers every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

David and Edna Tevet founded the year-round Dinners for Kids program in 2011 shortly after watching a commercial about hungry children. Mr. Tevet thought the advertisement was referring to hunger in Third World countries. They found out differently.

“We’ve been here for 33 years and we didn’t think there were hungry people here in our community,’’ says Mrs. Tevet. “We thought we were very connected to what was going on here.’’

“It really bothered me,’’ adds Mr. Tevet, who spoke with teachers and representatives of Luzerne County’s Children and Youth agency about the issue. “I decided if I can find a solution to the problem I would help. The best solution is to provide the children with a nutritious and balanced dinner in a microwave-safe container so the kids heat the meals themselves.

“It makes us feel great. That’s my reward. I am really helping the children. Not only don’t the kids go to sleep hungry, but they do better in school and they behave better,’’ he adds.

When the Tevets sprang into action, they wanted to make sure they could build a sustainable, cost-effective program that provided nutritious meals for many years. They consulted with nutritionists, educators and others in the community who were familiar with the plight of the working poor in the area. The restaurateurs donated space and the cost to cook the food before setting out to secure additional volunteers to package and deliver the meals.

As the program fast approaches a milestone of serving 100,000 meals, Mr. Tevet realized that providing these hot meals only scratched the surface of poverty in the region. He turned to the Department of Social Work at Misericordia University to expand services to families in need that were identified through the Head Start program, Children and Youth, Commission on Economic Opportunity, and regional educators.

“We already gave them the food, but they have other needs,’’ Mr. Tevet says, while watching the program’s volunteers package 120 meals on this early afternoon in November. “The kids and their families need help and other services, and they are not aware of all the community programs available to them. They (Misericordia students) are really doing well by the families. It’s a good experience for the students and it is good for the families that we serve.’’

Margaret A. Rapp, Ph.D., M.S.W., L.S.W., A.C.S.W., chair and associate professor, and Susan McDonald, Ph.D., M.S.W., L.C.W., assistant professor and director of field education, assigned seniors Brianna Pasterchik of Forty Fort, Pa., and Frederick Collier of Kutztown, to the program for their field work experiences. Together, the Misericordia University social work majors essentially became case managers under the direct supervision of faculty, and worked to assess the families’ needs and in turn connect them with the appropriate social service agencies in the community.

The Misericordia students continue to assess the needs of 10 families in the Dinners for Kids program, working 200 hours each in the fall and spring semesters. “It’s a unique opportunity for the students to start applying the skills they learned in the classroom,’’ says Dr. McDonald. “On a bigger picture, they begin to see how poverty impacts families in so many different ways.’’

In 2011, the new Dinners for Kids program began operations by providing meals to 40 children. Now it provides about 35,000 meals annually to about 120 children. The nonprofit program continues to expand thanks to the generosity of volunteers who package the food and deliver it at no cost to the program, various financial donations from the community and foundations, and the program’s cost effectiveness. Mr. Tevet’s model enables the program to deliver meals at $2.20 each.

“Part of the reason I am in social work is when I do good, I feel good,’’ Collier acknowledges. “When I see the kids, it’s like looking at our future. It’s an obligation. Every kid is entitled to have the resources they need to fully develop. Anybody can make a difference. I think it really just takes a lot of people working together.’’

“It makes me feel great,’’ Pasterchik adds about the work they have accomplished together. “It is important to realize that every person has the potential to make a difference in the lives of others in the community.’’

For more information about the Dinners for Kids program or to make a contribution, contact Dr. McDonald at smcdonal@misericordia.edu or Mr. Tevet at dotevet@epix.net.

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