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The Web of Love at Ceres Community Project

Contributed by Sonya Dexter, teen volunteer and board member at Ceres Community Project

Sonya, second from left, in the Ceres kitchen with other teens

Sonya and other teens in the Ceres kitchen

When I stroll into the Ceres Community Project kitchen every Thursday afternoon, I find my happy place. Pots slamming, kettles screaming, knives chopping and kids chattering; the sounds swirl around me and then collide with the earthy smell of mushrooms, the sharp tang of onions, and the sweetness of roasted beets. I am surrounded by a loving, caring community of people. This is where I am perfectly content.

Ceres teens in the garden

Ceres teens in the garden

The Ceres Community Project is a nonprofit organization that has taught me the value of volunteering. Teenagers learn gardening, cooking and nutrition while preparing 60,000 meals a year for people suffering from life-threatening illnesses. For three years, I have volunteered there every week. I have been mentored by caring supportive chefs and have learned how to prepare nutritious organic meals, even though I intensely dislike vegetables.

After my first year, I became a Teen Leader. I assign tasks to the volunteers and mentor them through recipes we create. I had always envisioned leaders standing at podiums and directing others. Working as a Teen Leader taught me that there are many types of leaders. I lead by working alongside a volunteer, whether it be by demonstrating a more effective way to chop onions or leading teen discussions on self-empowerment.

One way I share lessons of empowerment is through telling my own story. I, a seventeen-year-old girl, have the ability to change the world. My work at Ceres touches the lives of an incredible number of people through something we call the “Butterfly Effect.” In cooking food for people, I give them my love and support and they, in turn, pass on that love to everyone they come in contact with. To be seventeen and sit at the center of this web of love is an incredible thing.

Some of the most empowering moments we have at Ceres are during client visits. On a rainy December day, an elderly woman hobbled into the kitchen wheeling her oxygen tank behind her. Between wheezing breaths, she looked every teen in the eye and then said, “You are my guardian angels. You have saved my life.” I was only fourteen but those few words were so incredibly powerful. When I heard them, I realized that I can make a difference in my community.

From the stories I have heard from clients, I know that they can feel the love we put into the food. In the Ceres kitchen, we strive not only to create a positive atmosphere where no bad vibes go into our food, but also where teens can feel supported and confident in their abilities. This judgment-free atmosphere is not available to many teenagers. I am so lucky to be able to escape my crazy life and walk into the kitchen, the one place where I feel like I am needed.

Last spring, I was chosen to become the teen member on the Ceres Board of Directors. Speaking up at a board meeting can be intimidating, but when I am asked for my opinion on an issue I feel respected and know my opinions are valued. I now have a better understanding of the “behind the scenes” work and dedication required to operate the Ceres Project, but it is my realization of the direct connection between what one eats and their physical and emotional health that has truly inspired my future goals. I want to study medicine and focus on improving public policy to ensure that everyone, regardless of their economic situation, has the same access to healthy foods and learns about good nutrition.

Teens packing meal bags for clients. Teens prepare 60,000 meals each year in Sonoma County and another 15,000 in Marin County

Teens packing meal bags for clients. Teens prepare 60,000 meals each year in Sonoma County and another 15,000 in Marin County

The feeling of contentment that I feel at Ceres allows me to collect my thoughts and jump back headfirst into my crazy life. Every time I step into the kitchen, I feel more empowered to go back out into the world and make decisions that will improve my life, and the lives of everyone around me.

Sonya Dexter

Sonya Dexter

The Foundation thanks Sonya for sharing her beautiful essay with us! You can see Sonya’s bio on the Ceres Board page. Ceres Community Project, its community garden, and kitchen are located in Sebastopol, California. Their mission is to build healthy communities by restoring fresh, whole and organic food to its place as the foundation of health, and by connecting people in heart-centered ways to themselves, others and the earth. The seed-to-table learning experience for teens and the community starts in Ceres’ half-acre organic production garden where 13- to 19-year-old volunteers grow and learn about the food they use in the kitchen. Teens work in the garden and the kitchen where meals are prepared and they ensure that the freshest, most nutrient-rich produce is used to support healing of the clients that receive their meals. In 2006, the idea for Ceres Community Project came to Executive Director Cathryn Couch when she and a friend’s teenage daughter started cooking healthy meals for a few families facing serious health issues. Since then, Ceres has received national recognition and their model is being followed in affiliates across the country. For more information about Ceres and to witness how they make and deliver over 1,000 meals each week, check out their website.