ANDERSON TWP., Ohio — If all goes as planned, a space at First Lutheran Church in Over-the-Rhine will temporarily transform into a fancy restaurant on Dec. 10 for some of the neighborhood's families living in poverty.
Students in Erin Horn's Business Management I and II class at Turpin High School will prepare a meal with the help of a former chef from Cheesecake Factory. They are calling it Over-the-Rhine's Family Feast, and they expect 130 people to attend. There will be fine silverware, and the students will dress up to serve as waiters and waitresses.
"It's about the experience more so than just giving them free food," said Nicolas Ferguson, a senior in the class.
The dinner is part of the group's Future Business Leaders of America service learning project for the year. The teens in Horn's class decided they wanted to do something that addressed the city's persistent poverty problems.
They thought about doing something for homeless adults. But after doing some more research and talking to Ferguson's dad, Brian Ferguson, who is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Over-the-Rhine, they decided to hone in on childhood poverty in the historic neighborhood.
You've probably heard about all the new development that has happened in Over-the-Rhine — hundreds of millions of dollars worth south of Liberty Street.
But there are still hundreds of children and families living in poverty there, especially in the neighborhood's northeast quadrant where Rothenberg Preparatory Academy is located.
I wrote a story about how Rothenberg serves the hundreds of poor children who attend the school and live near it.
Horn told me that story helped influence the students' decision to do a project that helped those kids, although it doesn't seem like they needed much convincing.
The Turpin students have been volunteering at Wesley Chapel Mission Center in Over-the-Rhine, where lots of Rothenberg students go for the after-school program there.
Becky Costello, Wesley Chapel Mission Center's director, said she appreciates the fact that the Turpin students have been talking with the kids and forming relationships. They aren't just sitting on the sidelines after making a snack, she said.
That's what she hopes will come of the Dec. 10th dinner, too.
"I'm hopeful that they're not just doing it for them, that those young people will be there in the mix, just as when they come here and volunteer," Costello said. "We just believe that building community is so important, and I think what they're kicking off is a real good way to start it."
Costello also likes the fact that the dinner is for families — not just the kids who attend Wesley Chapel Mission Center's after-school program.
"Keeping that unit together and giving them a family experience is a real plus," she said.
That's what the Turpin students thought, too.
"A lot of the kids, their parents work a couple of jobs, and they can't see their kids that often," said Austin Miller, a junior. "We're just really hoping to bring the families together so they can, like, bond and have Christmas dinner."
In addition to dinner, the students have collected about 100 winter coats they plan to distribute that night.
And after dinner, the Turpin class will show a family movie — maybe "Elf," maybe "Inside Out" or maybe something else — complete with popcorn.
The idea for the feast and coat drive came from Nia Camejo, a senior at Turpin. Before she and her family moved here, they lived in North Carolina. And every year they volunteered for a church that had a rehab facility for homeless men.
"They do a huge dinner for every holiday where they have waitresses, pedicures going on, people giving out coats, phones for people to call their family," she said. "Every year my family would go and volunteer Christmas morning. Sometimes they'll pull you over to the side and say, 'This is the first time in months I've been spoken to like a human being.'"
The experience made an impression on Nia, and she and her classmates are hoping their project will make an impression on the Over-the-Rhine families who participate.
Most of all, they hope it's the start of something more.
"I think after this project is over, we still want to have relationships with the kids down there," said Max Grossman, a Turpin senior. "We don't really want to disappear after this project is over. We want to continue the relationships, especially with the kids."
Beyond the coats and the meal and the movie and popcorn, that could end up being the best gift that the students of Horn's class could give.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO this year.