In New Haven, Conn., the Kids' Service Team promotes 'having fun while doing good.'
With ingredients donated by deVos and others, the children—ages 8 through 14—baked 13 pies for people in need. The experience was a huge hit with the kids, one of whom wrote an essay on how it awakened in her a sense of gratitude for all she has. As deVos drove home that November night to her suburban home, she saw something lying in the middle of the empty street. When she got out to take a look, she found $35 in cash.
“No one was in sight anywhere and there was no way to identify an owner,” recalls deVos. “I smiled and planned the next KST event.”
Since then, under deVos’s leadership, the KST has taken on a number of projects to engage children in social justice issues, including doubling the number of pies they baked this past Thanksgiving, making blankets for immigrant and refugee families, and preparing dinner one evening for 12 men sheltered in the congregation for a week during the winter. “The kids did a great job making the dinner and sharing it with the guests,” says deVos. “The kids said, ‘I was afraid of homeless people before but because of cooking for and having dinner with them, they seem like pretty okay guys.’ It un-demonizes being a homeless person.”
With a motto of “Having Fun While Doing Good,” the KST is modeled on Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core, but for a younger age group. “I see the KST as a way to continue providing for the needs of children whose preferred spiritual practice is service,” says deVos, who hopes it eventually will grow into an interfaith group. A child and adolescent psychologist, deVos lays the groundwork for each project by reading age-appropriate materials to the children, and selecting related activities that kids can accomplish.
Lois Smith, who co-chairs the congregation’s Social Justice Council, says the KST can serve as an inspiration for other UU congregations looking to include younger kids in social action. “It’s such a wonderful blend of abstract, conceptual stuff and being thought-provoking at the kids’ level, then engaging them in activity,” she says. “It’s fun but purposeful.”
Children are naturally action-oriented and learn better with visual materials and activities in which they can participate, deVos adds. Moreover, “I think that for people who do service as children, it becomes a lifelong practice, and the younger you start, the more it becomes part of who you are,” says deVos. Service “gives a person a sense of efficacy, a sense they can make a difference,” which supports good emotional and mental health and helps diminish depression and despair.
This year, the KST is continuing work begun last spring with a grant from the UU Service Committee to help the children see issues facing restaurant workers. DeVos began by summarizing Saru Jayaraman’s book Behind the Kitchen Door, which exposes the very low wages and poor working conditions for many restaurant workers in the U.S. (The book is the 2013–2014 Unitarian Universalist Association Common Read.) They then watched videos created by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), which works to improve conditions for the nation’s 10 million restaurant workers.
Then came a highlight for the children: a field trip to the Shake Shack restaurant in New Haven, owned by the Union Square Hospitality Group, which is committed to treating its workers fairly. The restaurant manager opened up early for the kids and had a question-and-answer session with them, so they could practice asking questions of restaurant managers in other establishments, as ROC urges all diners to do whenever they eat out. Shake Shack then gave the children sunglasses and free ice cream; the kids are now making return trips with their parents and other adults, deVos says.
To share what they’d learned, the kids made a tri-fold poster pointing out that many restaurant workers must rely on food stamps to feed their families and go to work sick because they don’t get paid time off, and urging support of the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013. In a particularly creative effort, they created a board game similar to Monopoly, in which players take on the roles of different restaurant workers referenced in Behind the Kitchen Door, whose wages, benefits, and well-being vary enormously based on their race and other factors.
The children displayed their poster and played the board game with adults in the congregation during social hour on two Sundays. “The board game is intended for players to develop empathy for the real experiences of restaurant workers,” explains deVos. “You typically play a couple of rounds until you get a sense of restaurant workers who cannot get ahead because they are working for $2.13 an hour.”
Last spring, the group became a task force of the Social Justice Network at the New Haven congregation, so it will receive ongoing funding from the congregation as it continues its work and looks to new projects.
Photograph (above): Children from the Unitarian Society of New Haven’s Kids Service Team practice asking questions of restaurant managers at the Shake Shack in New Haven, Conn., as part of a restaurant worker justice unit (courtesy Lurline deVos).
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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