By: Najla Alexander
The anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks at the World Trade Center has transformed over the years as a day of remembrance and mourning for those impacted by the tragedy into a day of service and doing good for others, UCC officials stated.
Unity Community Corporation (UCC) officials announced that at UCC, the nonprofit's YouthBuild AmeriCorps Volunteers decided this year to dedicate the day to bringing a sense of unity and togetherness to their community.
For the AmeriCorps volunteers, officials said, doing a good deed for their community came by way of cooking a warm, homemade meal Monday morning for homeless residents in the Greater Newark area.
UCC Director of Emergency Mobile Units Cathy Ibarrondo was joined by UCC's YouthBuild AmeriCorps Volunteers as they prepared and cooked shepherd's pie meals that will feed up to 75 homeless residents, officials stated.
"Today, I feel like it's a good time for us to help out and give back," said Leandro Villatoro, one of the YouthBuild AmeriCorps Volunteers who could be found in the kitchen stirring and seasoning ground beef in a sizzling hot pan.
"Somebody [we're helping] could have lost a family member on 9/11, and that could still affect them even after 20 years. At least now they can have food on the table."
UCC officials said while Leandro pitched in on the stove, his peers prepared mashed potatoes and veggies to include in the shepherd's pie meals.
According to officials, with the aromas of garlic, onion, and meat circling the tight cooking space, the work going on inside the kitchen played an essential role in the day-to-day lessons UCC's YouthBuild AmeriCorps Volunteers learn.
The program provides teens and young adults an opportunity to receive education services to obtain a high school diploma or equivalent, in addition, officials say, they participate in numeracy and literacy skill-building projects that they can use to pursue post-secondary education and/or a career pathway if desired.
Officials said the program also provides participants a variety of opportunities to learn job skills in construction and other high-demand employment sectors like healthcare and dental.
Another facet of the program includes employability skills such as communication and teamwork through various service projects while empowering the community.
The service project they participated in on 9/11 at UCC's kitchen, located in Newark's West Ward neighborhood, fulfilled this goal as cooking meals for the homeless offered ample opportunity to learn workplace skills, according to YouthBuild AmeriCorps Coordinator and Case Manager Tara Bass.
"We're doing this to give back to others but, in a lot of ways, what the volunteers are taking from this today is the spirit of Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the attacks, a date that marked the start of support from around the world," Bass said.
"While we will never forget the impact of 9/11, Sept. 12 taught us the importance of community, togetherness, and ultimate selflessness."
"One of the biggest takeaways that I can see them experiencing is being able to give back to their community and help someone in need; from driving down the street with their parents or walking through the neighborhood with friends - seeing those less fortunate individuals and being able to put a smile on their faces is something they love," she said.
The idea of seeing underserved individuals in the community hit close to home for one of the AmeriCorps volunteers participating in the service project, Bryan Escobar, according to officials.
While Bryan immediately took to the multitude of tasks of working in a kitchen with confidence and wit about him that immediately cheered up his peers, service projects like these are something he takes with serious conviction, given his upbringing.
"I come from a less fortunate background, so when I get to help those less fortunate, it makes me feel better about myself and about everything that I'm doing," he said.
"I'm happy that we get to feed people today… Being in this program really showed me how blessed I am. It has opened my eyes and made me more grateful for "everything that I have."
Just as Bryan finished stirring potatoes to be layered over a set of aluminum trays filled with beef and veggies, officials said he received a helping hand from his fellow volunteer, Leslie Almanzar.
For Leslie, giving back to others isn't as much a "project" as it is a passion, "I love helping people," Leslie said.
"I came here today because I love community services… It's a good experience to take in."
UCC officials say the AmeriCorps volunteers' work inside the cooking space couldn't have been possible without the guidance and support of Ibarrondo, who helps manage the kitchen.
On any given day, Ibarrondo said the UCC kitchen staff serves anywhere between 60 to 200-plus people. With warm meals prepared, cooked, and packaged daily on-site, they're then delivered to Greater Newark's most vulnerable residents.
"Part of UCC's mission in transforming a community begins with making sure people have food in their stomachs," she said.
"A homemade meal goes a long way in lifting up the spirits of someone who has very little."
Grateful for the assistance she received inside the kitchen through the YouthBuild AmeriCorps Volunteer service project, Ibarrondo ensured the young volunteers didn't leave hungry, officials say.
Once the shepherd's pie meals were placed inside the oven to bake, they gathered in a room connected to the kitchen, where Ibarrondo helped prepare bags of groceries for them to take home.
"Part of feeding others means making sure those doing the "work are well-fed, too," she said.