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A children's program builds a community

​The sitting area where the children at Kids Cafe can either play games, read books, or talk to each other. (Photo by Brianna Taggart)1 / 2
Tutorials for how to draw some characters hang on the wall so the children at Kids Cafe can learn how to draw them if they so choose. (Photo by Brianna Taggart)2 / 2

Bright, yellow walls are filled with games and coloring books, and a picture of Simba from "The Lion King" hangs on the wall of a room in the Damiano Center, 206 W. Fourth St.

"I loved the mix of working with childhood development and building community skills with kids at a young age," said Ashley Grimm, children's program manager of Kids Café.

Kids Café is a Damiano program that provides healthy meals, educational activities and a safe, fun place for children year-round. This program allows the children to engage in activities that will not only help their emotional well-being, but will also make them feel part of a community.

There are about 10 to 25 kids who show up each day during the school year, according to Katherine Mueller, development director of the Damiano Center. However, during the summer, as many as 40 kids may show up daily.

Most of the kids who attend this program get there by walking, so it is easier for them to come during the warm summer days, according to Kids Café program assistant Michele Naar-Obed.

Kids Café does not require the children to have qualifications to be part of the program, Naar-Obed added.

"I like the ethic behind the services that we provide that every human being has inherent dignity, and so they decide if they have a need," Mueller said.

Kids Café spends time on nutrition education and allows the children to grow some healthy snacks themselves, such as potatoes, pumpkins and squash.

"We got to do a late harvest this fall, and it was really like digging for treasure," Grimm said about the kids harvesting potatoes.

The types of food people eat matters. Children who eat healthy meals are less likely to do poorly on a test in school, according to a study done in 2005 by the Journal of School Health. That conclusion stayed the same even after adjustments were made for family income, sex and education.

When told they were going to start making snacks, the children started a list with snack ideas, Grimm explained while flipping through their ideas with a smile. The list included salsa, guacamole, tortilla rolls, personal pizzas and calzones.

"There's this one kid who loves salad," Naar-Obed said with a laugh.

"I want the kids to have a say in what we're doing, and to have it come from them as much as possible," Grimm said.

Kids Café is able to provide these healthy snacks and meals by their partnerships with Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank and private donors.

Second Harvest collects food from grocery stores that are getting close to expiration dates. Organizations in need are then allowed to go in and pick what they want.

"Once a week, I go up there to get milk that is really discounted and pick up any free produce that I want," Grimm said.

Kids Café also has a couple of different partnerships to provide opportunities for the children to engage in activities that not only help them get exercise, but also teach them about different cultures. One of those partnerships is with the Avalon Educational Institute, 404 W. Superior St., which provides classes specific to martial arts, dance and wellness.

The children take capoeira classes, which are a mix of Brazilian martial arts and dance, at the institute on Wednesdays.

"It teaches kids about this mind-body connection," Grimm said. "It's just a blast for them. It's a really constructive way for them to get their energy out and to build strength, too. ... It's hard to focus on emotional well-being and community building, and I think we are really getting there with this program."

Kids Café got its start in 2001 due to a growing number of children who were starting to come to the soup kitchen without a guardian. The people involved wanted to create a program that would address this need in the community in a nurturing way, according to the Damiano Center's website.

"We all have to come together and really feel ownership and pride in our community and who we are in it," Grimm said.

The program is located at the Damiano Center and is open each Tuesday through Thursday from 3:30-6 p.m., with a meal at 5 p.m.

If you wish to learn more about the Damiano Center and its other programs, information is available at www.damianocenter.org along with ways to volunteer and donate.

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