Category Archives: Food Of Love

Editorial: Teaching kids the value of service

Originally posted in the St. Helena Star on December 30, 2013.

The laughter and innocence of a young person can do wonders to lighten the mood of a military veteran recovering from combat-related stress disorders. And what better way to teach kids about veterans than by putting them in a room together?

That’s the concept behind one of the most successful projects undertaken by the Napa Valley Youth Advocacy Center, an organization founded by Tom Amato to promote young people’s mental and emotional well-being.

NVYAC’s core philosophy is that kids can find what they’re looking for — identify, purpose and a sense that they’re valued — by making a difference in someone else’s life.

The first time Jazmin Escobedo and Jacky Gonzalez, then eighth-graders, went to the Pathway Home, a nonprofit based at the Yountville Veterans Home that helps traumatized soldiers, they were nervously expecting to sit through a meal with a bunch of seniors and chalk up some required community service hours.

When they arrived, they found out that a lot of the veterans were younger than their parents, and easy to relate to.

When they left, they were asking Amato when they could go back.

After almost three years of regular visits to the Vets Home, Escobedo and Gonzalez, now high school sophomores, say they’ve forgotten all about their community service hours.

Now they’re excited about deepening their understanding of veterans, like when they met a service dog who’s trained to wake up his owner from trauma-induced nightmares. The students learned that yes, vets are heroes, but they’re also humans just like the rest of us, with unique strengths, flaws and interests.

Just chatting about sports and enjoying a meal with a young person can cheer up a veteran and relieve them from the weight of their most painful memories, at least for a little while.

Meanwhile, the vets are happy to draw on their personal experiences to advise kids to focus on their goals and keep a positive attitude.

The collaboration with the Pathway Home project is just one of the ways the NVYAC, which evolved from the old Angwin Teen Center, is teaching kids the value of service and compassion. At Rianda House kids teach seniors how to use cell phones, and every Tuesday kids prepare meals for cancer patients as part of the “Food of Love” collaboration with the Martin-O’Neil Cancer Center at St. Helena Hospital.

Connecting kids with veterans is an example of how Amato builds reciprocal relationships that benefit everybody, unlike a lot of traditional mentoring programs that are all about an adult helping a kid.

During more than 40 years as an educator, Amato said he’s learned how important it is to understand young people on their own terms. When he started mentoring the youth who used to hang out in front of the Carnegie Building, he looked past the tattoos, body piercings and misanthropy and found a group of smart, talented young people who just felt misunderstood.

He’s learned that at-risk behavior starts in elementary school, when kids who lack certain academic skills start to feel there’s something wrong with them.

If their needs aren’t accommodated by the time they get to junior high, they’re all too likely to start checking out of the educational system and experimenting with drugs, sex and other “at-risk” behaviors. They feel like they can study and fail, or not study and fail. So why study?

By recognizing those symptoms early, Amato said he believes our community can give kids a sense of purpose and confidence by teaching them the value of serving others. Along the way, they learn to relate to people who are very different from them, whether they’re military veterans, seniors or cancer patients.

We’d love to see Amato take the logical next step of encouraging the NVYAC’s youth volunteers to mentor their peers and become ambassadors of service and compassion.

It would be even better if the rest of the community could take Amato’s message to heart by embracing troubled youth, teaching them the value of service, and realizing that we can learn as much from them as they can from us.

Food, Film & Love

Thursdays, February 2 -23

Join the Napa Valley Youth Advocacy Center and the Cameo Cinema each Thursday in February for a featured film hosted by a Napa Valley celebrity chef. All proceeds will benefit Food of Love a mentoring program where teens learn to cook in a healthy way and support their community at the same time.

Food, Film & Love - A Cameo Community Arts Film series benefit for Food of Love

Film, Food & Love 2012: Schedule

Food of Love is a collaboration between A&A Kitchen of St. Helena, Napa Valley Youth Advocacy Center, and St. Helena Hospital Martin O’Neil Cancer Center, — a 100% volunteer, locally-focused program providing cancer patients and their families healthy meals during cancer treatment. While the main intent of the program is to provide nutritious meals to patients, the bi-product is a mentoring program for teens. Under the supervision and caring of the chefs Amy and Adrianne, teens are learning how to cook in a healthy way and supporting their community at the same time.

“The Food of Love program has opened doors that I never thought would be open. I have met people that have changed my life for the better and that care about me. Without the Food of Love program I would be wasting my time not doing anything productive, but now I am helping others and getting experience in the process. The Food of Love program is amazing and it’s all possible thanks to Amy and Adrianne.”
— Devin, junior chef

Purchase Tickets:

$30/person at the door for each individual event

Unable to attend? Support Food of Love

Not able to join the film series but you would like to support teaching youth how to cook in healthy way while giving back to their community? Support the Food of Love project and donate today!

*Tax deductible. Tax ID#13-4293407

Food of Love

“How do you turn down someone who says ‘I’m hungry’?” asks chef Amy Cohen. How about if they’re a cancer patient whose treatment is giving them a myriad of symptoms from nausea to fungus of the tongue that make normal food impossible to consume?

Once a week in a gleaming A&A Kitchen facility in St. Helena, a group of teens and adults gathers for an afternoon of culinary compassion, making incredible menus for just such people.

Currently hosted by St. Helena Hospital’s Martin O’Neil Cancer Center, A&A Kitchen, and the Napa Valley Youth Advocacy Center, this project is highly rewarding ─ and promises to grow. Under the direction of chefs Amy Cohen and Amanda Tuttle, young participants are cooking and delivering meals for cancer patients in treatment at MOCC.

The young cooks, who are recruited by NVYAC and come from local public and private schools, home schools, and service groups, range from grades 5 to 12 and are across the demographics (and style) spectrum. The consistent factor is that the kids are participating because they want to, because they love the project. “They’re volunteering because their cousin or aunt or somebody had cancer, so they want to be involved,” Cohen says.

So far, 37 kids, seven college students, and ten adults have volunteered with the program, with several becoming regulars. They’re involved in all aspects of the program from nutrition education to menu development to problem solving ─ and, of course, culinary skill development. NVYAC executive director Tom Amato has been impressed with the young volunteers. This program is one of the most powerful I have seen,” he says, “with a learning curve that is fast and intense as the kids step up to the plate to do a phenomenal job.”

In turn, Cohen is “the consummate auntie,” developing relationships with the teens that include interactions ranging from the exchange of menu ideas through the week to online games of Scrabble! “It’s fun to get in there and watch these kids get a sense of accomplishment,” she says. A trendy teen with a “yeah right” attitude who refuses to eat anything green might join the project, and a couple hours later their mom shows up and asks what they made. Cohen loves it when the response is, “It’s like a kale salad – try this!” and the mom’s jaw drops.

Amato sees the project as the perfect place for this kind of transformation. “Many of the teens involved have had difficulty in traditional settings and are thriving with the personal attention, opportunity to be involved in making a difference, and training of caring mentors,” he says.

A story that sums up both the project and the kids’ commitment comes from a moment when the group was discussing possible names for the project. One young participant didn’t think the name should be in English. With a little research, they came up with “alimento di amore” ─ which in Italian means “food of love.”