Resilient Neighborhoods: East Side Teen Center opens new kitchen to promote cooking skills, wellness

Youth involved with the Eastside Community Network (ECN) now have a newly renovated place to prepare meals for their teen cooking program. Chian Hamilton, a Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School student who participates in the nonprofit's Teen Advisory Council (TAC), is certainly looking forward to using the space, which will be known as the Grill & Chill Kitchen.

"I feel the kitchen is really nice. I really like how it came out," she says. "I'm planning to come to classes, cause it's nice and I want to support it."

TAC is composed of a group of between 12 and 15 local youth who meet twice a month to provide guidance and feedback related to programming at The Vault, ECN's teen center. The space is located in the basement of Stoudamire Wellness Hub, which is located at 4401 Conner St. on Detroit's East Side. Teens involved with TAC, participate in leadership training and put together grants for some of The Vault's programs.

The new kitchen, which celebrated its grand opening on Nov. 30, was made possible by a TAC-authored grant. The Skillman Foundation awarded the proposal with a $20,000 Youth Mental Health Grant. 

The bulk of these funds was used to purchase a dishwasher, refrigerator, two stoves, and new counters. Money from the grant is also being used to support programming and purchase food and supplies. Lowe's Home Improvement's Hero Project has also contributed to the effort by donating and installing new floors and cabinets in the space.

Carrianna Geter created this mural for The Vault's Grill and Chill Kitchen. (Steve Koss) Carrianna Geter, a young adult who lives in the neighborhood, was commissioned to decorate the kitchen with a mural. The 18-year-old honed her drawing and painting skills by participating in art classes at ECN and the nearby Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

"I asked a couple of people what fruits and vegetables they would like," Geter says of the mural's design. "Then I had a thought, two spatulas with juice and food bursting from it. That would look sweet!"

The opening of the kitchen also marks the relaunch of The Vault's Grill and Chill youth cooking program, which was discontinued in 2019 due to the COVID pandemic. The free program is open to local youth between the ages of 14 and 18 years old. Organizers expect between 25 and 30 young people to participate.

Teens with the group will be cooking and eating together once a week. The program will explore different recipes and ways of cooking and also involves special presentations. There are also plans to have a quarterly event where youth in the program demonstrate what they've learned for adults in the community.

"We'll have professional chefs and other people focused on nutrition," says Tanya Tanya Aho (Steve Koss)Aho, ECN's director of youth programming.  "And the students are very interested in looking at all sorts of different kinds of food, different international foods. and even things like vegan food." 

The cooking classes are aimed at teaching important skills, emphasizing the role food can play in building community, and exposing participants to potential career pathways. The programming will also focus on how cooking can promote health and well-being.

Lorenzo Spencer, an area resident who works for the state of Michigan, brought his teenage son to the grand opening of the kitchen. He's interested in having his son participate in cooking classes and other programming at The Vault.

"I think it's great to give the kids other things to do," he says. "Cooking is a life skill and it also could inspire them to become chefs, if they're interested."

A TAC member checks out cooking utensils at the opening of the Vault's new kitchen. (Steve Koss)
The Grill and Chill cooking classes are only one aspect of what's going on at The Vault these days. The space is intended to be a safe spot for young people in the community to hang out, learn, and get to know one another. To that end, it hosts a variety of fun activities including movie and game nights, art classes, and writing workshops, and also offers tutoring, and college and career prep resources. 

In addition to helping guide activities at The Vault, youth involved with the TAC program also participate in ECN-led community planning work and leadership-building activities and typically focus on one major project each year. 

Last year's TAC cohort took part in a writing workshop sponsored by Riverwise Magazine. They write an article highlighting how students at Southeastern High School feel they have not been included in a community benefits process connected to the expansion of the Stellantis Mack Assembly Plant. The current cohort is working on a pop-up that will promote local Black-owned businesses.

ECN also sponsors a College Access Program (CAP) at The Vault to help guide high school students in their college or career paths. The program includes a mixture of individual tutoring, workshops, college prep support including help with college and scholarship applications, tours to Michigan-based and historically Black colleges and universities, and assistance buying essential college supplies.

Teens and young adults between the ages of 18-25 can also participate in a program called After the Cap & Gown that's focused on helping them figure out their college and career options. It supports participants by presenting information and resources connected to higher education, vocational training, and apprenticeships. 

ECN also sponsors a summer youth employment program for interested teens. More information about programming at The Vault can be found on ECN's website.

Photos by Steve Koss.

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.