It's not so heavy together

A Christmas dinner offers a respite for youth and a memorable moment for adult volunteers.

Children enjoy a Christmas meal together at the Community Center for Youth.  For some, such meals and a chance to be with caring adult volunteers are a welcome alternative to hanging out on the streets.

Children enjoy a Christmas meal together at the Community Center for Youth. For some, such meals and a chance to be with caring adult volunteers are a welcome alternative to hanging out on the streets.

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Three evenings a week, a small band of Community Center for Youth staff meet at their rented space in St. Patrick Catholic Church to open their hearts and doors to kids -- any kids who want to be there -- to give them a safe, wholesome place to hang out.

There's food, friendship and mentoring -- and a gym and rec room for games.

If you stop by, you'll find kids there ranging from 12 to 18 in age -- quiet ones, talkative ones, girls and boys, athletes and artists. There'll be no drugs, alcohol or disrespect allowed -- and you'll get called on bad language if you try to use it.

Those are the ground rules, but the Community Center for Youth isn't run like boot camp. Instead, it's led by people who are focused on building relationships, and who believe that creating safe places for kids to be in the company of caring adults might be one of the best investments we can make.

So when given a choice to hang out on the streets or come to a place where they know they'll find warmth and caring in spades, some of Walla Walla's kids are choosing the latter.

If you don't know about CCY, here's a quick overview:

While kids who attend CCY can learn important life skills -- like getting and holding a job--they first and foremost forge relationships with trustworthy adults who care about them.

While it's open to anyone, many of those who come haven't had the same opportunities as others.

Some of the kids, I'm told, have never had a family meal together at a table. Some live in poverty. And for some, the ravages of drugs, alcohol and abuse in their families are known all too well.

It's funded entirely by donations and grants -- and never charges for its services.

Over the holidays, our family had the privilege of being part of a community-sponsored Christmas dinner for the kids at CCY.

It's hard to say what was more touching -- the generous response of people who happily opened their wallets and hearts to provide the dinner and gifts for each kid -- or the joy of spending an evening with the staff and kids.

I'll confess, I didn't know what to expect. But by the end of the evening these kids had taken up a place in my heart.

Take Precelia, for example, a young lady who shared with us her dreams to study cosmetology someday.

Or Luis, who reticently shared his love for art.

Or the basketball team, who resisted desserts to help stay fit -- but agreed to Christmas hugs before they left.

But one comment especially tugged at my heart. When Allejandro said he hangs out there because it's better than the streets, I heaved a hearty "Amen" for the work CCY is doing.

Throughout the evening, it became evident that anyone -- young or old -- could be a part of this important work. My dad served as the resident grandfather, visiting with the kids and encouraging them. Friends and family members served, cooked and cleaned up, and wrapped packages.

As a community, I know we're concerned about gangs, poverty, and abuse -- and I salute the countless people who are already working tirelessly to help create a hopeful future for many.

But to those of you who are still looking for a meaningful way to be part of the solution, I extend this invitation: find a place where you can do more than give money -- where you can come alongside people who want a better future, but need some resources and encouragement do so.

The Christmas dinner with these kids reminded me that there's nothing like eating together to create a sense of community. For our family, meals together are a common event. But for so many, they aren't.

Extending the table offered an antidote to the paralysis I often experience when I hear about the suffering across the globe -- but feel helpless as to how to respond. It moved me from hand-wringing to cooking, serving and eating alongside kids right here in our community.

I've too often been guilty of writing a check and abdicating my personal responsibility for the underserved in my community to those we hire to do so. It sometimes feels like the needs so far eclipse our own resources to help, and like the small things don't matter.

But the kids at CCY reminded me that small things do matter, and that everyone has something to give. We gave them the gift of time and food, but they gave us the gift of true community. I'd like to think we're all a little better because of it.

For information about the CCY, visit wwccy.org

DeLona Lang Bell is a mother and wife and president of CMBell Company, and a friend of CCY.

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