By Mckenzie Moore

Staff Writer

The Kids’ Pasta Project (KPP), a nonprofit in the North Fork community, is making a few changes this year to be able to continue its operations even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The project will continue in full swing this summer, but instead of having large group dinners, pans of lasagna will be made for delivery and pickup in order to keep the project going in a safe way during the pandemic. The 8-inch by 12-inch pans will hold eight servings and come “ready to put in the oven.”

The Kids’ Pasta Project was formed in 2009 and has since served over 170 dinners that benefit the North Fork community. One of the primary purposes of the project is to support local nonprofits, and the proceeds from each dinner go to a different organization that partners with the KPP.

This year, the June 8 dinner benefitted Elsewhere Studios, while proceeds from June 22 will go to North Fork Senior Connections, June 29 to KVNF Public Radio, July 13 to Paonia Historic Society, July 20 to Redlands Mesa Grange, July 27 to Drug Free Delta County, August 3 to Creative Coalition and August 10 to World Music.

“I hope we get to contribute some significant amounts of money to these organizations,” said Sara Puharich, volunteer coordinator for the KPP. “[We’re] making sure we’re supporting these really vital parts of our community if they’re not able to have their services due to the limitations of the time.”

The residents of the North Fork community have also added their support to the project. Puharich said that people this year were buying the lasagna pans (and thus supporting that week’s organization through the proceeds) and then donating the pasta itself to a family who needs it.

While supporting area nonprofits and arts organizations is important to the project, it has another primary purpose: to teach the volunteers (mostly made up of kids and teens) different skills that they can use in their futures. While younger volunteers typically start out by making pasta and bussing or serving tables, they can move up to management positions as teens.

“The money is one thing. The past two dinners raised $400, but I think it’s the educational experience that comes from that and the sense of community, those things are more significant than the money,” said Moni Slater, director of the Kids’ Pasta Project. “There’s training built into everything. Teenagers taking on management roles are passing those skills onto the next generation of volunteers.”

The involvement with area nonprofits also gives the young volunteers insight into their community and how it all works together.

“I really appreciate how it gets kids and teens involved in philanthropy and know the local organizations they’re supporting,” Puharich said. “They’re expanding that awareness in youth and teens of what is available to us in this community. We live in a really rich environment and it’s fun to get the kids involved in that.”

Under normal circumstances, a business or organization will offer up its venue for volunteers to both make the pasta and serve it to the community in a banquet format. However, with COVID-19 restrictions on large group gatherings, the KPP had to find an alternative method of making and distributing the food.

Instead of meeting at a vendor and making the pasta together, the materials are now given to the volunteers and their families at home. The volunteers make the pasta, then send it out to the people who ordered the dinners via pickup or delivery.

“I think especially during this pandemic that we’re showing the younger kids that we can keep on going, we can still involve them by making videos and their families can make lasagna,” said Aiya Schwartz, guest services management volunteer. “It’s showing people we can still keep on going.”

Although the group no longer meets in quite the same way, making the pasta at home allows for time spent with family. Schwartz said the guidance for younger kids that usually comes from teen volunteers can now come from parents or older siblings. Through photos sent in from the families, she could see that the community aspect is still present at home.

“It was an excuse for us all to work together and spend time together and do a fun activity, and to get those photos, they’re having fun, there’s love and joy put into this,” said Nikoya Schevene, volunteer team manager. “We can see how much fun is going into creating this and making a meal for others to enjoy as a family.”

The Kids’ Pasta Project uses the acronym TIPS to describe the skills volunteers learn through the experience. “T” stands for “teamwork,” which Schwartz said takes place both in the kitchen and at home during the alternative dinners this summer.

“It shows if you work together, things will go faster to make it a way more productive and easy flowing night,” she said.

The “I” is for “initiative,” which Schwartz said is taught to younger kids as they work in a restaurant setting.

“[It’s] people stepping up and taking things into their own hands,” Schwartz said. “A little kid would see a table is not cleared and do that, even if no one is asking them to... They know what they’re supposed to do, and they keep an eye out for that.”

“PS” stands for “problem solving.” The Pasta Project has kids meet after the dinners and discuss what went well and what could have gone better, including feedback from guests. The kids have a space to share their own thoughts and come up with ideas to improve the experience for everyone.

“It’s a safe space for the kids to know their ideas are being heard,” Schevene said. “They can come to people older than them and share an idea and have it be heard. They’ll come up with another way to improve everything overall.”

Although the pandemic made things a little different this year, Slater said the program is still going strong and has grown significantly in the past decade, primarily thanks to the young volunteers themselves.

“I’m so thrilled to work with these guys and to see from 11 years, though it was really fun in the beginning too when parents were running the show, this is ideally a nonprofit for youth that really empowers the youth to run the show,” Slater said. “To actually see it come into fruition is thrilling. To see these guys stepping up and making it happen, I think it makes for a more sustainable nonprofit.”

The cost of the pasta this summer is a “Pay What You Want” model, in which after about $4 is taken out for supplies, the rest of the money goes toward that week’s nonprofit. Reservations can be made by emailing kppreservations@gmail.com or calling 970-250-6836. Pickup will be at the Paradise Theatre (215 Grand Ave. in Paonia) Mondays from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., and delivery is available for those in the Paonia vicinity.

More information on the Kids’ Pasta Project can be found at kidspastaproject.org.

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