Seattle, in a word, rules. That’s partly because the city is home to Teen Feed, a groundbreaking organization that engages volunteers in offering meals, support and services to homeless youth and teens. It’s also because of JConnect Seattle and Hillel UW, two organizations (and Repair the World partners) that engage college-aged and young adult Jews in all kinds of amazing, Jewishly-rooted service work – including volunteering with Teen Feed!
Robert Beiser, who is the Campus/JConnect Repair the World Director at Hillel UW, took the time to speak to us about how Teen Feed serves Seattle’s homeless and street-connected youth, why JConnect decided to host a weekly Teen Feed site, and what it’s like being Seattle’s largest default kosher education organization.
Tell me a bit more about Teen Feed.
It’s an incredible program that’s been around for 25 years. They work with volunteers to serve meals to homeless and street-connected youth – the meal serves as a platform for case workers and long term volunteer workers to create and build relationships with them. Over time, they have become an incredible resource for teens in Seattle and a model for other organizations nationally.
How many teens usually show up for meals?
On any given night there’s usually 30-70 youth who come in for a meal. While they’re eating, advocates go and sit with them. It’s a great way for youth to connect with services that they can’t access so easily through the government. For example, if a 15-year old needs some kind of service and they talk to someone in government they’ll likely be told, “you’re under 18, we’re going to place you in foster care.” They might also be deterred from going to social services in the first place – somewhere where they’ll be in an office with adults they don’t know. They could feel embarrassed and uncomfortable and decide it’s not worth it, when really they need services.
Teen Feed says, we’ll give you a hot meal and there will be people there who think you’re valuable and who believe in you and your future. Through the meals they develop relationships before they’re ever asked anything, like if they want more stable housing, or to go back to school, get a job, or get help with substance abuse. It’s been a really successful program. There are lots of cases where former guests now have jobs and families, and are even on the board of Teen Feed.
How have Jconnect and Hillel UW been involved with Teen Feed?
Teen Feed is held in a different church or community center each night of the week – Hillel hosts it on Sundays, and Jconnect members volunteer to cook and serve. We’d volunteered for a while, but wanted to take the opportunity to provide a real service to our community. We wanted to integrate the program into JConnect and make it a hallmark of what we do. So we talked to Teen Feed about being a host site. These days, for the first time in 25 years, Teen Feed can offer meals 7 days a week, and every night of the year. We also regularly send groups to help make food on days like Christmas and Easter Sunday, because our volunteers will be free.
What do Jconnect participants do when volunteering at Teen Feed?
We have an average of 10-12 volunteers a week, and we’ve had about 90 different volunteers over the course of the year. The meal team volunteers provide the food, and then both cook and serve it on a buffet line. We use real dishes and have a compost for all the stuff people don’t eat. We’ve actually helped other Teen Feed hosts set up composting at their sites too. Our team works out of the Hillel kitchen, which is strictly kosher. So in a way, we’re also the largest kosher education organization around by necessity!
What type of impact have you seen from JConnect’s work with Teen Feed?
While we’re volunteering, we occasionally get into really deep conversations about the role of Jewish communities in doing service and social justice work, and about individual versus collective responsibility. 9 times out of 10, I’m not the person leading the discussion – this type of work really gets people talking and gives them a chance to grow.
Another thing that is really remarkable to me is the Teen Feed staff. They’re mostly young people in their 20s, and they go week in and week out and hear some of the most heartbreaking stories from people who look just like them. They take that on with so much dignity and compassion, and keep the focus constantly on what they can do to best serve and be the best organization they can. Teen Feed is constantly improving itself to become smarter and more compassionate in its work, and to respond to feedback, trends and changes. It’s an honor to be involved.