Children dash excitedly about the basement of Austin’s YMCA, their laughter bouncing off the high ceilings. A few boys dart playfully in and out between tables before one of the four chaperones tells them to sit down. Some girls giggle and talk amongst themselves as they play checkers or jump rope. Little boxes filled with banana nut muffins and milk litter the tables.
This is just another typical day at the Kid’s Cafe, a program managed by the Chicago Food Depository, where children and young adults can eat one free meal between the hours of 1 and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Though there are several Kid’s Cafes in the area, the Austin YMCA, 501 N. Central, is the only one that “caters to the community,” said Terrayne Ellis, who oversees the program.
While Kid’s Cafes in other neighborhoods only serve the children enrolled in their YMCA programs, such as summer camp, Austin’s Kid’s Cafe opens its doors to any youth.
The programs can help “any young people that come in off the street,” Ellis said.
The Kid’s Cafe serves a variety of meals, ranging from cheeseburgers to lasagna, to over 100 children. Parents aren’t allowed to dine with their children, as the program is designed primarily to feed the youth, but 19-year-old Angelique Epps, who helps monitor the room, said the kids don’t seem to mind.
“The kids are excited,” she said, laughing while sweeping the floors. “They run from their parents actually. They don’t want to leave.”
Parent Lurita Beard, who drops her son Andre off at the Kid’s Cafe every week, said the program gives her the time to go to school for her G.E.D at the West Side Learning Center at Malcolm X College. Other parents are busy trying to find jobs or working. Beard said the program is positive for her son.
“It gives the kids something to do, keeps them off the streets,” she said.
Many of the children say they like being with their friends and eating some of their favorite meals.
“We play games and do each other’s hair,” said Takylah Latham, whose parents work and go to school while she’s at Kid’s Cafe.
Older youths, such as 18-year-old Brandon Nellum, often help with the younger children and eat as well. Nellum has helped with the program for three of the four years it has been offered at the YMCA. He said he enjoys working with the children.
“If kids got nothing to eat at the crib, then they can always come to the Y and eat,” Nellum said. “If they’re hungry, they can always eat up here.”
Although some of the children who attend the Kid’s Cafe are not struggling, said Ellis, poverty is an unfortunate reality for others. Several do not attend school, or they live in a household where their guardians can’t meet demands, Ellis said.
“A lot of young children don’t know what their next meal is, so they’re able to come to the YMCA and get a good meal,” he said. “A lot of them probably won’t even tell you that this is the only meal that they have.”
The Kid’s Cafe is open year-round, except for weekends and holidays. During the school year, it serves between 5 and 6 p.m.