It’s 2:30 on a Friday and there’s a slight buzz in the air. Today is a Graduation Day at Liberty’s Kitchen, and everyone’s excited.
Graduation is the culmination of four months of hard work for our youth trainees. After daily instruction and coaching in the five tiers of our program, we celebrate the young people who have made it to the finish line! Today, we celebrate Ronald, Breonne, Leon, and Jeraneisha.
The trainees have been hard at work in the kitchen today creating their graduation meal; as part of the celebration, they get to choose the feast. BBQ chicken and lemonade for Ronald, carrot souffle for Bre, mac and cheese for Lee, and red beans and rice for Neisha. At 4 pm, the party starts. The staff is dressed up, but you can’t beat the graduates for swag. Ron’s in a tan blazer, Jeraneisha, a pink dress and gold hoops. Our latest Orientation class is present, ten strong, young people at the very beginning of their time with LK seeing what it’s like to successfully complete four months of life skills and employability training.
We break bread, and then the ceremony begins, a ritual we all know well. Chef Tasheena is our Mistress of Ceremonies, and roasts the students like no one else can. Ron is our “self-professed star pupil;” Bre, the resident perfectionist.
Neisha’s externship was at a daycare, creating meals for the participants. “I thought those kids were gon’ die,” cracks Chef T, and the room erupts into laughter, Jeraneisha laughing hardest of all.
But for each graduate, the ribbing ends with love. I watch Lee’s face as he listens to the words about him. “Lee, you were our cool guy, slow and steady. We’re proud of you for winning the race today.” He looks bemused, like he’s surprised to hear the room burst into applause.
Staffers line up to offer words of encouragement to the graduates. Everyone’s so proud. Ms. D, our fearless Orientation teacher, says to the graduates, “You matter, and your words matter,” repeating it until I’m sure they won’t forget. The awards are presented: Each graduate receives a knife set and a certificate of completion, poses for a picture. It’s a family affair, and family shows up: Ronald’s baby brother delights the crowd by sitting on his lap during a speech. The graduates speak, sharing words of thanks and reflection about their time in the program.
“I want to thank my classmates who helped me get through the program, I love you,” says Jeraneisha to her cohort.
Around the room, eyes are teary, but it’s congratulations, not goodbye. Now alumni, the cohort is eligible to participate in the Youth Leadership Program, a full eight months of programming and continued support after completion of the Youth Development Program.
Dennis, our Program Director, emphasizes that in a rousing speech. “We’re proud of you, and we love you,” he says to the graduates. “You are always part of the Liberty’s Kitchen family.”
After many more hugs and photos, the graduates finally clear out, the music is bumping, and the staff is cleaning up. I stack a chair and reflect: It’s graduation season across the country, but this ceremony feels more poignant than that of any prestigious university.
As Dennis puts it, “The graduations are never the same, because the young people are never the same.” Five more weeks till the next one, and we can’t wait.
–Posted by Nadia Laher, Development Coordinator