Cover Story | By Lara Bell –
For children living in shelters, holidays can serve as a reminder of all that is missing from their lives, reinforcing the trauma of their circumstances. Homemade Hope, a Houston non-profit with Memorial roots, is determined to transform this experience.
This month, Homemade Hope will coordinate Thanksgiving feasts for the children and families at five local Houston area shelters, grounding this season of their childhood in traditions and memories. Through Homemade Hope’s programming, the children join in the holiday preparations – crafting table decorations, creating invitations, planning a special menu and learning to cook traditional Thanksgiving dishes – in the weeks leading up to the event. Because the children participate in hosting Thanksgiving dinner for their families, the celebration holds soul-level meaning for families in crisis. The love in the room is palpable with smiles, grateful tears and all of the warmth that comes from a special meal prepared with heart.
The Origins of Homemade Hope
Homemade Hope grew out of Memorial High School alum Blair Bentley’s volunteer work in homeless shelters. Bentley began leading cooking and nutrition classes for children at a local shelter in 2012, introducing them to simple, healthy recipes they could prepare with available ingredients.
As her involvement deepened, Bentley’s passion for homeless children and awareness of their significant needs grew. She began to see the impact of this culinary program in their lives, and the vision of Homemade Hope was born. In 2014, Homemade Hope received its 501 (c)(3) non-profit status. Since then, the organization has expanded its programming and reach in partnership with local shelters. Homemade Hope strives to bring the joy and stability of a home life to homeless and at-risk children living in Houston’s shelters through the three pillars of its work: weekly cooking and nutrition classes, holiday celebrations and culinary field trips.
Harnessing the Power of the Kitchen
Bentley’s passion for cooking began when she was a child, growing up in Memorial with a family of three girls. Unlike her two sisters, Bentley was somewhat shy. She found her voice in the kitchen, where she loved preparing meals for her family and friends. The kitchen gave her confidence and allowed her to contribute to her family, and she believed cooking could do the same for children surviving stressful and uncertain circumstances.
“There’s something about the process of preparing a recipe from start to finish every week that is meaningful,” said Bentley. “It creates stability and routine and the opportunity to overcome small obstacles while doing something fun. The kids see that they can create something nourishing for themselves and others, and it gives them hope for their future.”
Through weekly classes, the children are introduced to new foods and educated about nutrition in a loving and supportive environment. “We learn about vegetables, fruits and all kinds of proteins and dairies that we don’t know about,” said Emerald, a 10 year-old Homemade Hope student.
Andrew, another regular student, relishes the independence of cooking. “When I get to make food, it’s fun, because I get to do it on my own with nobody actually helping me. I feel really, really happy since I can make some food.”
In the last year, Homemade Hope has expanded its work to adolescents at Star of Hope and now teaches three-hour intensive cooking workshops to teens with an emphasis on life skills. With instruction from Bentley and a group of committed volunteers, they prepare a full meal with an entrée, side dish and dessert. These skills help them care for themselves now and will prove invaluable when they are living independently in a few years.
Mr. Lynn, the children’s director at Corder Place Transitional Center, recognizes the impact of Homemade Hope’s classes. “When Blair comes in with Homemade Hope to a homeless child, to a homeless anyone – someone preparing you a meal, showing you how to fix a meal and have fun doing it – it’s a blessing.”
GatheringAround the Table
Bentley began cooking Thanksgiving dinner for her family when she was in middle school. She recalls brining the turkey with herbs, making fresh fruit pies and even creating hand-painted place settings for her family members. She fondly remembers the excitement of waking up on Thanksgiving Day and heading straight to the kitchen, where she and her grandmother roasted the turkey and watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The holidays played a significant role in Bentley’s love for cooking. “Growing up, cooking was about so much more than just the food. It was about bringing my family together and creating memories and traditions. I wanted to share that experience and those holiday joys with these children.”
Holiday celebrations are an integral part of Homemade Hope’s mission to strengthen families, which is why Homemade Hope hosts nine celebrations throughout the year, from Thanksgiving to Mother’s Day to the Fourth of July. In addition to teaching children how to cook, a significant emphasis of Homemade Hope’s work is bringing families together, as well as creating a sense of family within class. Every class ends with a “family dinner” where children gather together around the table to enjoy the food they’ve prepared in class and engage in conversations about gratitude and hope led by Bentley. Often, Bentley sends the children home with leftovers to share with their loved ones.
Sometimes, the children ask to cook recipes they learned in class at home. Angel, an 11 year-old living with her mom and grandmother, said, “I remember Miss Blair’s steps of cooking, and I ask my mom, ‘Can I do them at home?’ And it’s really making me strong and healthy.”
Creating Vision for the Future
Recognizing the limited opportunities of children in shelters, Homemade Hope also invests in the children’s futures. Bentley looks for the potential in the children she serves and helps them gain access to supportive educational environments. One young man now attends Chinquapin Prep, and several others have moved to high-performing schools specializing in the needs of at-risk children.
In the summers, Bentley arranges field trips, providing a break from the stress of shelter life while opening the children’s eyes to what the future can hold. The last two years, she has taken the kids on restaurant visits to tour kitchens, enjoy cooking demonstrations by professional chefs, taste new foods and try their hands at a recipe. Several children have since expressed interest in culinary careers. Currently, Homemade Hope is partnering with Luby’s to host a Jr. Chef competition. Homemade Hope’s children will be sous chefs to the finalists, and the winning dish will be featured on the restaurant menu to benefit Homemade Hope.
Homemade Hope plans to serve more locations – the next one in the Spring Branch area – as resources are secured, bringing hope and joy to more children. As families gather to give thanks this year, Homemade Hope will ensure its most vulnerable children have the opportunity to do the same. Visit www.homemadehope.org to get involved.