Soothing piano notes and the jazzy timbre of a saxophone gently float into the air from the guest musicians as we walk through the front doors—the receptionist greets us with a warm smile and we clip our volunteer badges to our shirts. It’s once again time for us to cook our monthly meal!
Scholars volunteering to cook meals at the Ronald McDonald House (RMH) of Charlotte is an enduring tradition for the LSP. The RMH of Charlotte is part of a larger subset of over 360 Houses that span the globe—while they are scattered in various countries around the world, they all have the common fundamental goal of providing a safe and affordable so-called
“home-away-from-home” for the families of children receiving care at nearby medical facilities. In learning a bit more about the history of how scholars came to volunteer at RMH, alumni Caroline Brewer (’14) and Kevin Caldwell (’15) took time to speak with me about the origins of the tradition, which began with the inaugural LSP class in 2010. At the time, the newly established RMH of Charlotte was looking to expand service opportunities available to the public and reached out to the program to initiate a partnership. As RMH’s mission-aligned well with the core pillars of the LSP, this was a natural match (not to mention that the collective experience of scholars having to put together edible meals in the wilderness at NOLS makes cooking in an actual kitchen seem far easier in comparison)!
Things began slowly at first, with just a handful of scholars at a time going to the House once a month to cook meals. As with any new endeavor, there were naturally a few kinks to work out before we could really hit our stride. Logistical matters such as determining which types of meals would translate best to larger portion sizes, organizing the recruitment of volunteers each month, and structuring the passing of the torch between graduating scholars who served as meal coordinators and underclassmen were concerns that had to be addressed. As the years have gone by, we’ve learned a lot from trial and error, sometimes unfortunately learning lessons the hard way (opting for organic cherry tomatoes for a salad probably isn’t the most cost-effective option!) but always having a memorable story to tell afterwards. In the early years of the LSP, simply by virtue of the smaller class sizes, it was in a relative sense challenging to consistently assemble a team of individuals to volunteer each month. These days we have quite the opposite predicament, with more scholars than can feasibly fit into the RMH kitchen clamoring to sign up each month!
At its core, volunteering at RMH is a casual and fun opportunity for scholars of differing backgrounds to connect and work together to put together a delicious meal. The great conversations to be had as well as the gratifying opportunity to serve the community are among the many things that scholars enjoy about volunteering at RMH. Moreover, especially during the months where class is not in session, RMH also serves as a fantastic opportunity for LSP alumni in the vicinity to stay engaged. Being a bit introspective, I think it’s also valuable to note the juxtaposition of our experience as volunteers as opposed to that of the families staying at the House. For scholars, cooking meals at RMH is a fun volunteer opportunity. On the other hand, for families staying at the house, the provision of a freshly cooked meal allows them to breathe a sigh of relief in that dinner for that day is one less thing they need to worry about—to be cognizant of the impact we are imparting helps us more deeply appreciate and value this opportunity to serve the community allowed to us.
In the 10 years that scholars have volunteered at RMH, we’ve hardly ever missed cooking our monthly meal—I think it’s safe to assume that a global pandemic is the only thing that can keep us out of the RMH kitchen. While volunteering in person has been put on temporary hiatus, our partnership with the House persists and we continue to support RMH in a remote fashion with monthly catering orders. When the pandemic does eventually begin to subside, I am confident that part of the return to normalcy will include scholars donning their aprons once again and getting back into the kitchen, continuing our cherished tradition of cooking meals at RMH.