On a recent Saturday night, five McDaniel College students spent the evening off the Westminster campus, busily preparing a meal for about 20 people.
The menu of cheesy chicken, broccoli and rice, with brownies for dessert, kept the crew busy in the kitchen on the second floor of the Believe in Tomorrow Children's House, located in Baltimore.
As members of McDaniel's Heroes Helping Hopkins, Alex Rieser, Amanda Sickel, Aliyah Clark, Lauren Marsteller and Myeisha Johnson were making dinner for families who are staying at the house — about two blocks from Johns Hopkins Hospital's main entrance — while their children are being treated at the hospital's pediatric department.
“Alex is the baker,” announced Clark, a Philadelphia resident attending McDaniel. She nodded toward Rieser, who was anxiously waiting for his brownies to cool before he cut them.
“I'm the dessert guy,” agreed Rieser, eyeing the brownies to see if they were doing OK. “Last time I was here, I botched the cookies.”
Once a month, students from McDaniel take part in the Family Supper Program.
Kate Sachs, a special events and communications associate with Believe in Tomorrow, said the supper program is probably the most popular program the group offers in terms of its reward for the volunteers and the families it serves.
“Different businesses, community groups and families come here and prepare meals here or at home,” said Sachs. “It is definitely a really great way for groups to connect with families.”
Typically the house, which can host 15 families at a time, is full, Sachs said. Each family has its own shelf in the kitchen's refrigerator and pantry, as well as access to all the appliances and dishes the house has.
On the family supper nights, meals are served in the communal dining room in the house at 6 p.m., with everyone invited, but not required, to attend. For the families, many of whom are visiting from out of the state, the experience provides a bit of a relief at a time when they are struggling with a difficult experience — the illness or injury of a child.
“We try to promote family bonding,” Sachs said. “A lot of the families are going through the same kind of thing. They can engage with each other and talk with each other.”
The sole purpose of McDaniel's Heroes Helping Hopkins club, which was founded in 2001, is to hold the cook nights. The organization doesn't collect dues from members, and relies on donations and money raised from fundraisers in order to purchase the ingredients they need.
Sarah Holbrook, a senior and president of the club, said, “The goal is to help out at the children's house by providing meals for the families, because so much of their time is spent at the hospital.”
“It's always been a great experience for me even though the situation is unfortunate,” said Holbrook. “The kids tend to be really happy and adorable, and the families are so appreciative.”
During its turn as cooks and servers, the group from McDaniel College usually arrives at about 4:30 p.m. to prepare the meals.
On Saturday, Dec. 1, as they prepared the meal, the students were quick to admit that none was an experienced cook. In fact, some in the group had just met, while others had cooked together before.
“It's been fun learning how to get along and cook,” said Marsteller.
As mealtime approached, the group was huddling together to see if the main attraction — the chicken — was done.
“It's supposed to be like that?” one student asked from the circle.
“How does it feel?” another asked.
At 6:30 p.m., the chicken was deemed “done” and families were invited to the table.
“The chicken and rice is really good,” said Tony Price, who lives in Colorado.
Price was staying at the Believe in Tomorrow house with his daughter, Tori, 10. Price's 13-year-old son and Tori's brother, Trey, was upstairs with his mother. The family has been staying at the house for two months because of Trey's illness.
“This is our home away from home,” Price said. “Almost every night they have a meal for us.”
Groups that help prepare meals, including the students from McDaniel, are expected to dine with the families, and are encouraged to socialize with them.
“I enjoy doing this and giving back to the community,” said Sickel. “It is really nice to help out, though to see the little kids with cancer is hard, too.”
“Some seem a little down,” said Johnson of the families attending the dinners. “We lift their spirits some.”