Cooking Up Hope in Chattanooga

Pastor Josh Woodrow of Bridge Community Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, understands the value of a home-cooked meal. Biblical hospitality is one of his personal and biblical foundations – and years of working in restaurants gave him useful experience in feeding large groups of people. “Guests are always welcomed in the Bible with the best meals that can be prepared,” Woodrow says. “If I want to build relationships, there’s no better way to do that than with a meal I’ve built a lot of love and time into.”

His philosophy led him to develop Serve+Share H.O.P.E. (Helping Others Positively Engage), which feeds school children from food-insecure households and builds educational, vocational and life skills in the children who serve in the program. Wheat Ridge Ministries awarded Serve + Share H.O.P.E. an Emerging Leader Grant (formerly Burst Grant) in early 2016.

Before Serve+Share H.O.P.E., Woodrow had spent about a year cooking up weekly, nutritious meals for 40 to 75 Calvin Donaldson Elementary School students. When the school’s community outreach director, Tammy Sitton, asked him about getting some students involved as a service project, it seemed like a natural next step. “I usually had 10-15 kids swarming the table as I prepped a meal,” Woodrow says. “They had an innate desire to participate in something new and there was excitement around cooking food.”

Woodrow and Sitton began in Serve+Share H.O.P.E in 2015 with a simple vision: give students the opportunity to develop their sense of responsibility and learn new skills while helping people—and having fun in the process. The program began with eight students and when the 2016 school year began Sitton had 20 students registered. Woodrow notes that the original crew became the program’s most lively advocates, talking up the program to friends, teachers, and school staff. “When teachers show up at a meal or event, the kids get pumped,” he says. “They felt good about the support.”

Devonte, a 5th grade Calvin Donaldson student, says the best thing about the program is helping others. “Cooking is a fun experience, especially for helping a good cause and feeding people,” he says. “I really like cooking with friends.” Like other students in the program, Devonte now takes the initiative to cook at home, noting that everyone has enjoyed his crisp, delicious fried baloney sandwiches. “I’m really thinking about a cooking career,” Devonte says. “It’s really going to be a big break for me.”

In the impoverished, crime-ridden community that Devonte calls home, there is an ingrained sense of hopelessness. “From a societal and familial perspective, these kids are ‘taught’ they are not worth anything—they are not going to amount to anything,” notes Woodrow. “Not only do the Serve+Share H.O.P.E. students gain new skills, but they begin to see value in their work and take pride in their accomplishments.”

Students learn how to prepare a recipe, budget their money to buy ingredients, and develop teamwork for activities from loading/unloading groceries from the van to working together in the kitchen. “A lot of our students struggle when it comes to processes,” Sitton says. “This is a wonderful avenue to have fun while training their brains to do that.”

Sitton notes that most of her students don’t have an opportunity to experience what many people take for granted. “Our first time walking into Costco, you would have thought it was the running of the bulls,” she laughs, “Without out-of-the box programming, many of these students don’t understand all of their options in life.”

Woodrow is inspired by the growth he sees in his students during the nine months they cook together, but he has struggled with recruiting dedicated volunteers who can modify their work schedule (shopping and cooking happens weekdays from 3 to 6pm). He is very grateful for Wheat Ridge’s financial support, but what really keeps him going is their spiritual, emotional and personal investment in his work. “Some people have said what we do [in Chattanooga] is futile and hopeless, but everyone in the Wheat Ridge organization has been affirming, encouraging, and excited about what we are doing,” he says. “The hope and confidence they’ve instilled in me, our programming strategy, and our future as an organization is just priceless.”

 

Thanks to the generosity of Wheat Ridge donors, we can support grantees like Pastor Josh Woodrow as they plant seeds of health and hope in their community. Because of your support, students like Devonte are acquiring tools to break the cycle of hopelessness. “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to help others,” Devonte says. “I know you really have faith in us.”

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