When Campus Kitchen first partnered with Family and Community Services to bring weekly dinners to Kentway Apartments residents, they ate in complete silence, said Kentway’s activities coordinator Jackie Flannery.
“It was like eating dinner in a library,” she said.
But in less than three months later, the residents’ lively chatter almost drowned out a live musician’s songs.
Family and Community Services purchased Kentway Apartments, a subsidized living community for people 55 and older, nearly two years ago and has since sought to improve the lives of its residents, Flannery said. The opportunity to do that emerged when the national Campus Kitchen approached Kent State’s chapter with a $5,000 grant and requested it use the money to engage older populations.
Since February, the chapter has delivered nutritious food and companionship to Kentway residents every Tuesday evening. Tuesday April 23, Campus Kitchen Kent State and Family and Community Services celebrated this program they’ve since named Kentway Cafe with cake and live music.
“Not only are we feeding them, but we have 15 to 20 volunteers each week that come and hang out with them,” said senior nutrition major Robert Guard, Campus Kitchen Kent State’s manager. “We have some people that have made relationships. They sit with the same person every week, and it brings joy to these people’s hearts.”
For some residents, he said, this weekly dinner provides one of few reasons to get out of their room. Seeing them excited to eat and socialize, he said, brings joy to his heart just as it does theirs. The food for this program, donated mostly from Trader Joe’s in Woodmere, often becomes available on short notice, he said, so preparation can be stressful. But nonetheless, Guard travels with drivers to Woodmere, often multiple times each week, for groceries to supply Kentway Cafe, as well as other Campus Kitchen initiatives.
Freshman nutrition major Sarah Morris has volunteered at Kentway Cafe a few times since it began. She volunteers in this particular program because she values getting to know residents, she said.
“It’s really great because once you come here once or twice, then you kind of get to know a few people,” Morris said. “They’re pretty much regulars. They’re friends you see.”
That interactive aspect of this particular opportunity surprised her, she said.
“I really didn’t know what to expect when I first came here,” Morris said. “I thought it was going to be like a normal volunteer opportunity, or like a soup kitchen or something where you don’t really get to interact with people.”
Senior nutrition major Olivia Kimball also finds value in building relationships with Kentway residents.
“Everyone knows something that you don’t know, so you get to kind of learn by serving them,” Kimball said.
The community aspect is somewhat unique to Kentway Cafe and distinguishes this program from others, she said. She’s grown close to one specific resident, she said, because he has granddaughters around her age. She looks forward to bringing him birthday gifts and talking with him each week, she said.
“A lot of these people don’t have a ton of family to come visit them, so you kind of adapt to them,” Kimball said. “They’re more like grandparents. You kind of just feel, like, loved and everybody remembers you.”
Amanda Woodyard, Kent State’s Community Engaged Learning director, brings her family with her each Tuesday and she echoed a similar sentiment. She said Kentway residents have embraced her family, almost as their own. Residents have made her children cards when they are sick and made them treat bags around the holidays.
“It’s almost like my children have about 50 new grandparents,” she said.
Beyond feeling personally rewarding, she said her job allows her to witness students stepping out of their comfort zones and growing. Although students sometimes feel intimidated by the prospect of essentially “eating dinner with strangers,” she said one meal with Kentway residents often breaks down those barriers. The residents are just as willing to share their own stories as they are to hear students, Woodyard said.
She also appreciates her job because opportunities like Kentway Cafe keep her involved in the community, she said.
Sandy Halem, the Family and Community Services enrichment coordinator, emphasized how important an aspect of community engagement can be to Kentway residents as well.
“The difference between a warehouse and living is interaction,” Halem said.
While Campus Kitchen’s food tends to Kentway’s residents’ physical health, Halem said the relationships they have formed with Kent State volunteers have improved residents’ emotional health.
“You’re giving them better nutrition, but they’re also making relationships,” she said. “They have somebody who cares about them every week, and they talk to people. Everything springs from that communal eating.”
Not only has this program brought together volunteers and residents, Halem said residents who otherwise wouldn’t have interacted have become friends. She said, for example, residents would bring food to those who miss the program due to illness. The sense of community this program fosters helps residents get through otherwise difficult times, she said. Many residents live on a fixed income and if other expenses spring up, Halem said, it’s like a house of cards.
“The other thing that’s real important is that older people are just like you except they’ve been through a whole hell of a lot of stuff,” she said. “They still want to have somebody to care about them. They still want to have a friend. They like music.”
Kentway resident Ann Lee spoke only kind words of the Kent State volunteers.
“All the students that come bring such a positive energy,” she said. “Really, all of them seem to be friendly and helpful, and they’re interesting.”
She joked that the volunteers’ presence drives residents to their best behavior but seriously said the program has helped residents learn more about each other.
Ralph Mills, who said he has lived at Kentway for six years, said comparing it before and after Family and Community Services took over is like night and day.
“They’ve gone out of their way to provide services for the residents,” Mills said. “One of the best things they’ve done is this program with KSU.”
Kent State volunteers and Family and Community Services employees treat residents with dignity, he said. While he has a car and often gets out of his apartment, he said he hopes the social atmosphere at Kentway Cafe helps other less mobile residents.
“The more you have of this kind of thing, I’m sure it’s better for their attitude and their emotional well-being,” Mills said.
Flannery, Kentway’s activities coordinator, said she has watched a caring community come to life since she started working at Kentway six months ago. An example of which she saw firsthand when a Kent State architecture student volunteer looked to a Kentway resident, also a Kent State architecture student, for feedback on a project he was working on.
“They’re just happier,” she said. “They’ve met each other, and they help each other and to sit back and watch that interaction, it’s really hard to put into words.”
Michael Indriolo covers social services. Contact him at email@example.com.