Serving and interacting with Charlotte residents in need is something a group of students at Park Road Montessori School not only enjoy, but a weekly ritual they look forward to.
Fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders in Christy Geiger’s upper elementary class have frequented the Ascension Lutheran Church soup kitchen for the past three years, working every Tuesday as waiters and waitresses serving Charlotte’s homeless and others in need. Every week, Carolina Miller, a Park Road Montessori parent, picks up three students from Geiger’s class before heading over to the soup kitchen herself.
“We have nine groups of three,” so each group visits the kitchen about once a quarter, Miller said. “It’s been an incredible community service for our students. I think watching children in that age group side by side with adults, without adults actually telling them what to do, is incredible.”
Park Road students started serving at the soup kitchen when it opened three years ago, Stu Nichols, soup kitchen manager, said. Jill Owens, a former Park Road Montessori mom, first served at the kitchen with her daughter before coming up with the idea to include Geiger’s class at Park Road. Owens approached Nichols about the partnership, but at first, he wasn’t sold.
“I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t going to work because working and interacting with the homeless can seem frightening,’” Nichols said. “Well, was I wrong. The kids fell right into it. That’s really been intriguing.”
Every Tuesday, the students, like all the other workers at the volunteer-based kitchen, come in ready to work and serve about 120 people. The kitchen, which is unlike traditional-style soup kitchens, has a restaurant feel, with a full-course meal every week including soup, salad, a meat dish, vegetables and dessert. Volunteers manage their own tables, take orders and wait on guests.
Nichols said having the kids around at the kitchen not only brings joy to the older volunteers but also the guests. He hopes the students are learning and taking away a “spirit of volunteerism,” something they can build into their character from a young age, he said, as they see other adults taking time out of their busy schedules to help those in need.
“The confidence they gain from serving – all they have to do is visit one time and serve one guest and they’ve got it. It makes them feel they have purpose, and they are capable of so many things,” Miller said about the students’ experience. Many times, she added, Miller gets feedback from students on the car ride back to school. They talk about the different people they served, anywhere from six to 18 people each in a two-hour time period. They talk about the different backgrounds and circumstances of the people who come in each week.
“They have a chance to experience what the other side looks like,” she said.
It’s real work, Miller added, with no one holding the students’ hands or telling them what to do.
For fifth-grader Wray Farlow, it makes him feel good to serve people in need, he said. But it’s the conversations and interactions with the people he’s met that has been his favorite part.
“I like meeting the people, and I like the environment. We have to carry a lot – that’s hard sometimes… but I think it’s worth it to come here,” Wray said.