Kids often say they want to grow up to be like a special adult in their life. Donyelle "Donnie" Williams made that wish come true.
As a child, Williams and her brother benefited from nutritious and free meals at a St. Louis Park program called Cargill Kids Cafe. Now Williams, 27, runs the program, as kitchen manager and chef.
"It's great to have these kids be able to look at people who went through this program or who look like them or who come from situations like them, and see that there's more to life than just what your current struggle is," Williams said.
The cafe's mission is to serve as a teaching kitchen, with healthy meals that meet school lunch guidelines, said Cargill Kids Cafe registered dietitian Kay Guidarelli.
The cafe serves 160 kids annually and is open five days a week, with much of the food coming from donations. Children are provided breakfast and lunch during the summer and snacks and dinner during the school year.
Cargill Kids Cafe is a program of Perspectives Inc., which provides services to mothers and their children, such as after-school educational support and housing services. Some of the mothers are experiencing homelessness, drug addiction or domestic abuse.
Williams and her brother were with Perspectives for a few years in elementary school while their mother received drug addiction treatment through the organization. There, Williams could try new foods, go on field trips and have other experiences she wouldn't normally be able to have, she said.
Williams always had an interest in food, but didn't necessarily know where her food came from or how it was made. Now, she's helping kids answer those questions while also teaching them ways to eat healthier and bring variety to their diets.
Many of them bring home their skills and cook at home, which delights Cargill Kids Cafe founder Sue Zelickson.
"She's just a perfect fit for this job," Zelickson said of Williams. "What's so fabulous is that Donyelle is now cooking the things that she remembers eating there when she was a kid.
"It's not only a rewarding thing to all of us who started the program and ran it, but this is exactly what you want, that the kids come back and spread paying it forward."
"Not only does [Donnie] have the talents in cooking and kitchen management, but she's got a great relationship with the kids," Guidarelli said.
"I tell her that that's something you just can't teach."
Williams typically works in the kitchen with two to six kids, overseeing as they help prep meals, learn about nutritional benefits in a hands-on way — such as talking about fiber as they cut up vegetables — and hone their kitchen cleanup skills.
Williams and Guidarelli also consider how realistic it is for the same meals to be made at home due to the accessibility of certain ingredients.
Perspectives' programming is available to children from pre-K to fifth grade, with some limited programming for middle schoolers. Children can also return as volunteers, much like alum Michael Gilbert did during high school and college after aging out of Perspectives' programs as a child. He returns monthly as a guest chef.
Gilbert was inspired to cook by his grandparents, who spent a lot of time in the kitchen with Gilbert and helped answer his cooking questions. But joining Kids Cafe also helped out his family, he said, because his mother worked in the evenings.
"Once I got in there, I just kind of fell in love with it, with all the staff," Gilbert said.
When the pandemic allows, Williams hopes to plan field trips with the kids to restaurants to meet chefs or to farmers markets, which she attended as a child.
The Perspectives playground also has garden boxes, supported through the Minnesota State Horticultural Society Garden-in-a-Box program, providing the kitchen with fresh produce such as kale and tomatoes.
Due to the pandemic, fewer kids are at the cafe now. Instead, many meals and other essentials are being sent to families' homes.
"It went from, 'OK, I just want seconds,' to 'Can I please bring home some food for my mom or for my brother?' " Williams said.
Wherever the food ends up being served, Williams said she is still "pushing forward every day.
"I come here to make sure that these kids know that where you are now is not your final destination."
Imani Cruzen is a Twin Cities freelance writer.