'Gratitude' is theme at Community House Family Dinner

Chop, stir, pour, whirrrrr. The kitchen in the Fields Center at Princeton was a whirl of activity Dec. 7 as local middle- and high-school students worked together to prepare drinks, appetizers and desserts for the Pace Center for Civic Engagement's second Community House Family Dinner. 

With music booming, the students made iced tea and lemonade, readied vegetables for dipping trays, and kept a food processor humming making homemade hummus. Chips and salsa found their way onto plates and into bowls. Later, an assembly-line team layered parfaits with granola, yogurt and a variety of fruits.

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In the theme of gratitude, middle- and high-school students work together to make yogurt parfaits for dessert at the Community House Family Dinner at Princeton University on Sunday, Dec. 7, at the Fields Center. (Photos by Gwen McNamara, Pace Center for Civic Engagement)

Community House volunteers Dallas Nan and Emily Reardon, both Princeton juniors, and Moni Owoade, a sophomore, joined "healthy-snack guru" Rose Holton, Pace Center administrative assistant, in watching over the food preparation. Other students decorated the room with festive streamers, poinsettias and lights. 

"As teenagers you probably think we don't care about anything, but we're here to tell you we think you're the bombdiggity," said Aba Smith, a seventh-grade student at John Witherspoon Middle School. She and Jeane Francois, a junior at Princeton High School, and Community House volunteer and Princeton junior Adaure Nwabe welcomed family and friends to the dinner and an evening of festivities themed around the notion of gratitude.

More than 70 students, family members and friends attended the dinner, at which Community House students read poetry, shared what they were grateful for, and played holiday music with members of the University orchestra Sinfonia. The evening capped off with caroling at some of the eating clubs along Prospect Avenue.

The Family Dinner series, launched in October, aims to bring Community House volunteers, students and families together over a meal, family-friendly activities and conversation as a new way to bolster Community House's mission of standing with families to close the achievement gap in the town of Princeton. 

"Time spent as a family over a meal positively contributes to both social-emotional wellness and academic success in children of all ages," said Charlotte Collins, Pace Center assistant director and director of Community House. "Our student-driven education programs work with students from preschool and kindergarten all the way up to when the launch into college. The Family Dinners help to strengthen the bridge between our amazing volunteers, our students and our families."

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Jolie Jean Wilson, a Princeton junior and Community House Preschool Program volunteer, makes thank-you bracelets with Letty Lopez, 4, of Princeton.

Founded in 1969 by an interracial group of Princeton undergraduates, Community House offers support in the areas of academic success and social-emotional wellbeing for underrepresented area youth through nine student-led projects: Community House After School Academy and Community House After School Scholars, Community House Big Sibs, Community Walk, Crossings, Generation One, Princeton Engineering Education for Kids, Preschool Program, SAT Prep and STEM Summer Camp. 

"Community House is so much more than helping with school work," said Reardon. "Having a Sunday family dinner is a great way to bring everyone together in a fun environment and really build a relationship between volunteers and families."

"I'm grateful for everything I have," said Leah Williamson, a ninth-grade student at Princeton High School who participates in the Community House After School Scholars project. "I like spending time with my family and am grateful for that because not everyone has a family they can spend time with."

"Making dinner we had to work together and cooperate and make sure we [could] understand each other," added Denzel Washington, an eighth-grade student at John Witherspoon Middle School and a Community House After School Academy student. "I'm thankful for the people who do so much for us. If someone does something out of love for you, it's important to show respect and say thanks."

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Ruth Ochs (center), a graduate student in music who serves as the conductor of Sinfonia, organizes members of Sinfonia and Community House middle-school students to play holiday music.

Many of the Community House volunteers appreciated the opportunity to meet the relatives of the more than 160 students they work with each week.  

"We do a lot of great work with our students, but we very rarely have the opportunity to see the parents and let them know how great their kids are doing," said Princeton senior Vicky Quevedo, project leader of Crossings, which encourages middle-school students to examine issues of diversity. "The only time we typically get to see parents is at the end of the year, when the students are presenting their final projects. … The Family Dinners bring everything together for all the different projects and really emphasize the community in Community House."

For family and friends, the Family Dinner was a time to show gratitude and say thanks themselves, while meeting fellow parents and caregivers and simply having a good time.

"I'm thankful that my brother has a program that helps him," said Fabiola Herrera, sister of Raoul Calvimontes, a sixth-grade student who takes part in the Community House After School Academy. She added: "Parents don't always have the time and if they do have the time they might not have the knowledge. I'm so thankful that there are kids at Princeton who are able to help him. My brother enjoys coming every day and getting to do things he loves, like cooking. It's so nice to share with the other families as well."

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Yogurt parfaits made with fresh fruit and other wholesome ingredients by Community House middle- and high-school students are prepared to hand out to parents and family members for dessert at the dinner.

"Anything that brings families together is innately profound," added Dwaine Williamson, father of Leah Williamson, a freshman at Princeton High School who takes part in Generation One, and Raina Williamson, a seventh-grade student at John Witherspoon Middle School who participates in the Community House After School Academy. "Statistics equate the possibility of children making good or bad decisions with the number of times they eat per week with their parents as a family. This right here is an extension of that," he said. 

"Community House does good in the community," added Williamson. "Many families in Princeton are a little more fortunate than others outside of Princeton, but even within Princeton there is need. We can all use some guidance and mentorship. I'm glad my children are a part of Community House."

The next two Community House Family Dinners will be held Feb. 8 and May 3.