Homeless children who once didn't know where their next meal was coming from now have their own refrigerator.
La Mesita Family Homeless Shelter, the only East Valley homeless shelter that caters to families, recently finished adding a kitchen to its existing food service on the six-acre Mesa property. The shelter is managed by A New Leaf, a nonprofit that runs several community services.
The warming kitchen, a kitchen without a stove top for direct cooking, is in the shelter's Child Development Center.
But the new kitchen now allows the center's staff to cook meals for the children rather than have food catered.
"(The kitchen) will make it so much nicer for everybody," said Amy Ahlstrom, daughter of Ross Farnsworth, owner of Farnsworth Companies. Ahlstrom and Farnsworth, who helped found La Mesita in 1991 along with the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, have donated more than $500,000 to the shelter.
La Mesita has been renovating the property since the money was donated last spring, but its first big endeavor was building the kitchen, which opened April 17. The kitchen, with marble counters, tile floors and stainless steel appliances, was built by Farnsworth Construction and many of the materials were donated, Ahlstrom said.
Karen Brown, program manager for La Mesita, said the shelter provides meals for children while their parents are out looking for a job, working or receiving counseling or educational services.
"The parents are able to look for jobs without worrying about who's going to watch their kids," Brown said. "That's what stops a lot of homeless adults from finding employment; they have a child to care for and they don't have the money for day care."
The center, licensed through the Arizona Department of Economic Security and accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, provides day care and a school-like atmosphere to children ages 5 and under.
Christine Frank, a teacher who has worked in the Child Development Center at La Mesita for 11 years, said the six-month kitchen construction project has taken a huge burden off the teachers and staff.
Frank stressed the importance of nutrition education for children and their parents.
"(La Mesita) is going to incorporate a cooking program in the Child Development Center's curriculum so the children can learn about nutrition and have some fun doing it," Frank said. She said the new education program will supplement what the children's parents learn about nutrition and caring for their children in their parenting classes.
Penny Ross, a registered dietitian who owns her own practice and teaches nutrition at University of Phoenix and Mesa Community College, said she believes nutrition is especially vital for children.
"If a child is not getting the proper nutrition it can seriously affect proper growth even to the extreme of improper brain development," Ross said.
In summer, older children ages 6 to 17 will be using the center's services instead of going to school, Brown said.
"All the children here at La Mesita are benefited by this kitchen," she said.