Ironbound Kids Cafe

It’s 3 p.m. in the Ironbound section of Newark. While many youngsters are walking home unescorted from school or going home to empty houses and apartments, the children at the local Kids Cafe are laughing, playing, and enjoying a healthy, hot meal.

Kids Cafe is the nation’s largest after school meal service program and an initiative of Feeding America, a national network of nearly 200 regional food banks, including the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. CFBNJ administers 13 Kids Cafe programs throughout the state in partnership with various agencies, social service charities, and afterschool program to provide safe havens and nutritious meals for at-risk and low-income children.

More than just a place for children to eat, Kids Cafe’s provide athletic and recreational activities, art and music enrichment programs, and tutoring services, all under the supervision of trained adults in a safe and welcoming environment. It’s an experience you need to see for yourself.

I recently paid a recent visit to the Kids Cafe in Ironbound, was greeted with lots of big smiles and jumping little ones. In the gym, I had a chance to watch a soccer game, a little 4 year old scored a goal while screaming at the top of his lungs. His other teammates twice his size cheered him on, as they got ready for the next play.

The play area was a haven for a small group of boys who hovered around a video game. They were so engrossed in what they were doing, I didn’t want to intrude. But when I asked if I could take a quick snapshot of their group, they were nothing but big smiles, even while keeping the video game in hand.

Downstairs towards some more children were working on arts and crafts. The room was filled with tables set for the kids to sit and talk to their friends, color, or draw. One little girl broke away from her works to ask what I was doing there. When I told her I was there to meet some of the Kids Cafe participants and maybe snap a
a couple of pictures, she quickly jumped to her feet and struck a pose.

At around 4:30, food was served in the cafeteria. The children were called into the cafeteria by group numbers, and whichever table was the least loud were allowed to get into the lunch line first. While the kids filed in to get their meals, Program Director Zelia Oliveira came into the cafeteria and introduced me to the bunch.

“You all are going to be little models for today,” she said. Oliveira had told me that some of the children would be shy, while others very open and outgoing. Soon after she introduced me, little hands tugged at my shirt and asked, “Can I be your model?”

Throughout my visit to the Ironbound Kids Cafe, I spoke with some of the workers who are there with the children every day. Stacey has been working as a counselor at the Ironbound Kids Cafe for the last two years, after having volunteered with the organization for four years.

“Working here has taught me to be myself with children because they’re also learning to have their own personality,” she said. “I get to help them with their homework, which I’m very strict about. But they’re children and this is the time where a kids can be a kids”.

Another counselor, Melissa, says that one of her favorite parts of working at Kids Cafe is all of the different activities they get to do with the children throughout the year.

“I like when the holidays come around; we get to put on plays for the parents and participate with the kids,” she said. She went on to say that being a counselor has helped her learn how to be more patient and not get angry over little things. “This is where kids can express themselves in so many different ways; I’m happy to be a part of that.”

Before I left for the day, I found out that it was Kids Cafe counselor Bruno’s birthday. Oliveira came into the cafeteria, where many of the kids were still gathered, and she started to sing happy birthday. It wasn’t long before the children began to join in; even the lunch aid was singing the “Happy Birthday” song. Spending the afternoon at the Ironbound Kids Cafe was a deeply enriching

By Mia Cassell