Clara Phillips has been cooking professionally in kitchens for 37 years on the job and eight years as a volunteer. Yesterday, she instructed NYSUT President Andy Pallotta – who confesses to being skilled at making only coffee and toast – with step-by-step instructions on how to make a hulking vat of chili.
Pallotta, teary-eyed while chopping and dicing large onions, was cooking at the South End Children’s Cafe as part of NYSUT Cares, an outreach program where NYSUT officers and staff volunteer in communities. The downtown Albany café program serves about 30 children a day with homework help, after-school activities, and healthy meals. Extra meals are also sent home for their family members, so about 70 people are served a day.
“It’s all coming together,” said Pallotta, inhaling as he slid his chopped mushrooms off the cutting board and into the cauldron. This followed the thick layers of onions, garlic, 10 pounds of ground beef, and kidney beans. Phillips later added some canned corn.
“We’re giving our time and resources to make things more equitable,” said Wayne White, NYSUT director of social justice outreach, as he chopped cucumbers and sliced small cherry tomatoes in half lengthwise for the tossed salads. “Someone will get joy out of us helping out.”
“NYSUT Cares is to show we’re part of the community,” Pallotta said. “We’re in this together.”
The South End Children’s Café is community in all caps, in bold, in italics, in rainbow colors.
“I love it. I’ve been coming here since I was 5. I’m 9 now,” said Crai-lynn Jean-Gilles. “It helps me by making more friends, getting my homework done, and it brings me happiness.”
Tracie Killar is the moving force behind the café, which was created to build family, friendships, community and address food justice. A colorful wall poster in the dining room area reads “Cooking is Love Made Visible.”
“We exist on grants, donations and lots of volunteers,” said Killar.
The slew of volunteers includes retired teachers Tina Mancuso, Sandra Olson and Diane McNiven, who help kids with homework and read with them.
“Right now, we’re doing a lot of Halloween books,” said McNiven, a Bethlehem Central Teachers Association retiree who volunteers twice a week at the café. “There’s such great energy here. The kids are fabulous.”
Kitchen volunteer Toni Santos opens a large, white plastic bag filled with shiny green fresh lettuce. It is donated weekly from SEFCU credit union, a product of a hydroponic garden they have. Santos begins making individual salads, working in the commercial kitchen next to drawers marked “first aid,” “apple peeler” “hair nets” and “serving utensils.”
Up the hill in another location that is part of the cafe, NYSUT staff play basketball with kids outside in a walled court. The kids have a summer basketball camp, and during the academic year they get weekly visits from a rugby team and women’s basketball team from area colleges. Indoors, girls play air hockey, and another group discusses anime in a sectioned off area where they can draw anime characters.
“I named my cat after an anime character,” said Simone Sprague, a fourth grader, showing off the after-school space. “Everybody here is nice. We have birthday parties here. We get costumes for Halloween.”
Back in the kitchen, Santos by now was numbering paper bags, which would be filled with a tossed salad, a fruit salad, and the main meal. Each student has a corresponding number. Down the hall are stacks of takeout containers, which have been used heavily since COVID-19, when indoor meals at the café were stopped.
On this sunny day, many of the students were helping out at a bake sale to raise money for the café. They were busy baking the night before at the café.
“I baked cookies and cake,” said Quaonia Grimes, hurrying from the activity space back to the café so she could help out at the bake sale.
What’s your favorite dessert? she was asked.
“Everything,” she said, smiling.