How Cooking Is Helping These Low-Income Girls Take Charge Of Their Lives

Photo: Erica Gannett.
Anyone who’s ever tried to make a Bolognese sauce or chicken Marsala from scratch knows how rewarding it is to successfully pull off a delicious home-cooked meal.

But for those who don’t necessarily have a home to cook in, the experience can be even more powerful.

On Thursday, a group of 17 girls gathered at Brooklyn Kitchen in New York City to learn how to cook a healthy, delicious meal. The class brought girls together from Win, a women and family homeless services provider and advocacy organization that runs a summer program for children called Camp Win, and Petals-N-Belles, a “social development organization that empowers girls with creative workshops, real-world experiences, and academic coaching."

"If I wasn't in Petals-N-Belles, going to a pasta class isn't something that I would be thinking about doing on a regular day like this," Lela, a 15-year-old Petals-N-Belles member, said. "It's fun. Cooking requires a lot of skill and precision, and you need your full attention."

The organizations are coming together with events designed to inspire and encourage girls with limited opportunities — including some who are homeless — to dream beyond their circumstances. Girls from Win were invited to participate in a series of Thursday workshops included in Petals-N-Bells Summer Program, including “The Making of a Chef.”

“A lot of our girls are in and out of shelters, living in New York City public housing, in overcrowded homes,” Damali Elliott, the founder of Petals-N-Belles, told Refinery29. "By no means does that mean they’re not coming from a loving, caring, supportive family, but that these families are all in need and don’t have the resources to really provide for their children in ways that the middle- and upper-middle-class and wealthy class has the opportunities [to do]."

Four of the 17 girls participating in the Petals-N-Belles cooking class were from Win, according to Elliott. She said that the partnership with Win was born after one of the girls in her own program confided to her that she was homeless and living in a shelter.

“What really shocked me with that is that this young lady has always been a champion for the other girls,” Elliott said. “So, to find out that that was her circumstance, it was actually a shock, because I thought she was perfectly fine based on how she showed up and interacted with everyone.”

The events, crafted and funded by Petals-N-Belles, are based partly on new experiences, partly on education, and partly on what the girls can get out of it. The activities all have an element of teamwork and community, but also of educating girls on life skills and attitudes that will help them as they grow. Last week, they attended a trapeze class, and next week there's a TED Talk scheduled.

On this week’s menu? Homemade pasta with tomato sauce and pesto made from scratch. In addition to learning how to cook, the girls engaged in an enthusiastic discussion on healthy nutrition and the difference between mindful eating and dieting.

“I want girls to own their voices," Elliott said. "Their power begins and ends with them, and where they are is not a determining factor to where they’re going in life.”

Ahead, see inspiring photos of girls taking charge of their lives, their learning — and most importantly — their lunch.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the relationship between Win and Petals-N-Belles, as well as Petals-N-Belles' role in hosting the class. It also incorrectly identified a participant named Kiara as being a part of Win. Refinery29 regrets the errors.
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Photo: Erica Gannett.
"What all of the activities have come back to so far [is] coming together with a partner, or a team, and making something possible and making something happen. And that’s such a powerful message," said Cyndi Snyder, Win's volunteer and event coordinator.
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Photo: Erica Gannett.
As the girls rolled out the fresh pasta, flour was everywhere, with clouds of it appearing every time they moved.
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Photo: Erica Gannett.
Yailishka, 11, said that before coming to the class, she wasn't sure if she could do it. "I didn't think I was gonna pull it off!" she said.

She isn’t allowed to cook at home because of a small mistake she made when she was 6 years old. "I almost burned the house once, by accident," she said. She put French fries in the oven and forgot about them.

"I went to watch a movie, and then the alarm started beeping, and I was like, ‘Oh my god,’” she said. Nothing got damaged, but she said that, now, every time she tries to cook anything in the kitchen her mom hides on the other side of the refrigerator and watches to make sure she's okay.

"When I'm 13, I can use the stove again," Yailishka said.
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Photo: Erica Gannett.
Kiara, 14, says that she likes being surrounded by other girls that she can relate to.

"Before I got here, I had a lot of insecurities…but seeing other people like me feel good about themselves made me feel comfortable about myself," Kiara, a member of Petals-N-Belles, said.

She pointed out another girl in the group she was friends with, with a similar build to her own. "We’re both not the skinniest girls," she said. But she said the other girl's confidence and comfort with her body made her more confident in turn.

"She came in and she was all like, ‘Hey!’" Kiara remembered. "So I was like, ‘You know what? They don’t care about that, so I’ll do what I like.'”
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Photo: Erica Gannett.
Kiara, Azizah, and Mynaya, all 14, goofed around with the extra flour on their hands after rolling pasta.
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"We had a trip last week when we had to go climb up the [trapeze]. As a person who is bigger, I was like, ‘They’re going to make fun of me,’" Kiara, left, recalled of a recent trip to the Petals-N-Belles-sponsored trapeze class.

But when she saw her friend giving it a shot, she had to try, as well. "I was like, ‘You know what? Let me do it.’ I didn’t get to the top, because I’m scared of heights, but I did it," she said. "It would’ve felt worse if I didn’t try it."
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Snyder said that there's a lot of focus given to young children and parents struggling with homelessness, but that teens sometimes get short shrift.

"There’s a lot of attention put on the younger kids as well as the parents, which obviously we want to reach them, but the teens don’t always have these opportunities come about," she said.

"It’s a very vulnerable age, there’s a lot of changes going on…With these added challenges on top of that, I can really only imagine the process they’re going through while in shelters," she said.
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Mynaya, 14, stirred the boiling pasta water as two friends looked on.
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Nia, 14, said she liked cooking, but usually made breakfast food.

“I want to learn to make new things,” she said.
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15-year-old Lela, center, became homeless in the eighth grade. She's lived in a shelter with her family, including her sick mother, for the past two years after being pushed out by their former landlord.

"I live in a family shelter, and I don't come from much. It’s a little sad, on my end, but I try to always keep happy and be positive, because I don’t want the others around me to feel down," she said. "I keep an upbeat mood.”
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"It’s always good to keep a smile on your face, even though the situation you’re in might get you down and make you feel like you’re not good enough to do certain things," said Lela.

"Don’t have that mindset, open up your mind to everything around you, because everything does get better," she advised. She said that she hopes to one day be a psychologist or a fashion artist.

"Everything happens for a reason," she said. "So if it didn't happen, [there's] certain stuff I wouldn't be able to learn."
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Mynaya, 14, and Kadiatu, 15, took turns shaving potatoes to make the gnocchi.
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Arianna, left, and Alissa, right, both 11, said they like cooking, but haven't made anything like this.

Arianna's favorite thing to cook? "Bacon," she said.
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The fruits of their labors: The girls completed tagliatelle with homemade tomato sauce, potato gnocchi with pesto, and a bitter green salad.

Arianna, 11, had the best summation for how the group felt after completing such a big task.

"Hungry!" she said, laughing.