The savory, sweet aroma of freshly made cornmeal cakes filled the room.
“Arepas! Arepas!” the children exclaimed, as they ran into the room.
Their mothers had spent the morning making arepas – a doughy tortilla-like staple commonly served in households throughout Central and South America.
Many of the children had not eaten arepas since they and their families left Venezuela to make the months’-long journey to the United States. They filled the arepas with meat, cheeses, tomatoes, jalapenos, onions, and peppers, and savored every bite.
The arepas provided nourishment – and comfort, helping the children feel more at home in a new land.
Nilda Garcia, a Faith Community Nurse with Advocate Health Care, recently met the children and families while visiting a shelter established by the Chicago Park District for families seeking asylum.
While speaking with the families, Nilda learned that while they appreciated the public’s outpouring of support and donations of meals, some of the children experienced indigestion, diarrhea and vomiting after eating the unfamiliar foods. Many other children simply missed the home-cooked meals they were accustomed to eating.
The moms also shared how stressed, isolated, and bored they felt, living at the shelter, and how they’d enjoy cooking their own food again.
Nilda and partners from the Avondale Faith and Health Collaborative wanted to do something to help the families feel more at home. So, they arranged for the women to use the kitchen at St. Nicolai United Church of Christ, Chicago, to prepare one of their favorite food staples.
“All of the volunteers created such a supportive and welcoming environment for the women and children,” Nilda said. “Many of the women haven’t cooked for two to four months. They said it felt good to be in a kitchen again.”
The women have offered to pay it forward by cooking for Community Dinners, a meal program in the Avondale neighborhood. Christa Creps, founder, Community Dinners, says she looks forward to welcoming the women. “This makes me so happy,” she said. “Food and community are so powerful.”
“It was awesome to see the children’s reaction when they came in the room and saw their moms making arepas,” she said. “That moment is forever ingrained in my heart.”
David Antieau, pastor, St. Nicolai United Church of Christ, for welcoming the women and arranging for them to use the congregation’s kitchen to make the arepas.
Christa Creps, founder, Community Dinners, for funding the ingredients.
Rocio Salgado, volunteer: for giving one of the mothers the freedom to cook by caring for her toddler.
Miguel Casimiro, Community Connector with Advocate Health Care, and Griselda Ramirez, a Home Visitor with Concordia Place, for accompanying and engaging with the women.
Stevie Shakowskey, volunteer, for helping purchase the food items.
David Salgado, for organizing the kitchen and ingredients and assisting as needed.