When Cape Cod snugs down for the winter and summer residents depart, the town of Wellfleet, Mass., shrinks from 20,000 to 3,000. For some, that can be a letdown, and teenagers often felt there was “nothing to do.” Parents—as parents will—wondered what they might do to turn that around.
In 1997, two mothers, Sharyn Lindsay and Ellen Webb, came up with an answer—a Mustard Seed Kitchen. Lindsay wanted to “involve” youngsters. Webb suggested asking them to help cook meals for people in crisis. When the two sent out feelers to discover if such a need existed in the community, the elementary school called with news of a family in trouble—and Mustard Seed Kitchen was born.
At first it operated out of Lindsay’s home, but in 1998 Anne Freyss got the First Congregational Church to lend its kitchen. The system is simple: Someone calls to express concern for a neighbor or a friend, and Webb calls to ask if she can drop by with a cooked meal—the answer usually is yes.
“I tell them we do this twice a week and will continue until they tell us to stop,” says Webb. On average, 20 meals go out at a time. The Mustard Seed Kitchen helps people who are grieving, unemployed, sick, or going through other troubles.
Although adults do much of the food preparation, Mustard Seed also functions as a teen social center. Both Lindsay and Webb emphasize they want kids to feel it’s their kitchen, and they don’t have to work, but some help with the cooking and some do deliveries. Others come just to hang out.
On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons, the church basement smells of chicken soup and fresh baking. Pots bubble on the stove as food coordinator Iris Sands prepares le plat du jour. Teenagers wander in after school for brownies or melted cheese sandwiches—up to 40 at a time—and the adults make them feel welcome.
“I come with an appetite,” says Emily DeVasto. Sitting in the adjoining hall, she chats with Morgan Clark, who says, “It feels like family here. No matter how long you stay away, you get a good meal and cool people to talk to.”
“It’s a wonderful place to come and be warm,” adds Sky Freyss-Cole. “And we learn to feel more comfortable with older people.”
In addition to preparing meals, volunteers lead workshops: astrology, Reiki, and fly-fishing. Last winter, Lindsay taught sewing on five donated machines, an idea the kids proposed. In the spring, youngsters can choose guitar, yoga, or bonsai lessons.
“It was hard before to meet people after school,” says Eric Rushby. “I like to relax with the free food and pool.” Indeed, half a dozen kids congregate around the new pool table donated by a community member. Nearby, DeVasto and Tristin Cope play Hacky Sack while listening to the stereo. It was donated too, as were the computer, Foosball, and pingpong table.
Money to run the kitchen comes from individuals, as well as town government and the police association, which one year sent the kids whitewater rafting. Restaurants and supermarkets donate food. In the spring, Mustard Seed Kitchen holds an art auction with live music and a talent show involving both youngsters and organizers. Last year the event raised $4,000.
Lindsay’s son, Kai Potter, says he’s proud of his mom. “It’s a really cool thing she’s doing. She taught me that if you’re helping people, you feel good about it yourself.”
Tyler Roberts, Webb’s son, agrees. “I think the Mustard Seed has been a big influence because it shows that helping is a good thing.”
At Mustard Seed, the community comes together. Lindsay believes one-on-one relationships with the volunteers is the key. “Before, people were afraid of groups of kids,” she says. “Now they’re on a first-name basis. What’s more, the kids are made to feel adults care.”
When Lindsay and Webb first explained their plan—and their hope of building trust and continuity in young lives—members of the congregation were skeptical. “They were floored when we pulled it off,” Webb laughs.
All it takes is a couple of people with faith—about the size of a mustard seed.