Brenda Leigh provides Gemeinschaft Home residents with family-style meals, made daily from scratch with fresh, high-quality ingredients.
The sweet and savory aromas of home cooking quickly envelope the senses of anyone who walks through the front doors of Gemeinschaft Home in the early afternoon. Dinner is served daily at 4PM, but the irresistible scents that reach into every corner of the house often lure residents to the dining area earlier. Even some of the administrative staff members, whose offices are located on the first floor of the house, admit to venturing back into the kitchen periodically in search of one fragrance or another swirling in the air.
Food manager, Brenda Leigh, established the practice of preparing fresh, home-cooked meals for residents, when she joined the Gemeinschaft Home staff just over three years ago. At first, Leigh took charge of the kitchen on a temporary basis, and she characterized her role at that time as just “helping out” the organization while they hired someone to fill the position. However, shortly thereafter, she was offered the job permanently, and the Gemeinschaft Home community has enjoyed the benefits of her culinary skill ever since.
Leigh, who is known affectionately among the residents as “Ms. B.”—not just because her first name begins with the letter B, but she is often seen “as busy as a bee around the kitchen,” according to one former resident—is not professionally trained in the culinary arts, but she brings a wealth of experience to her work at Gemeinschaft Home. Much of her skill comes from her past work in the food industry, the lessons she learned as a child in her grandmother’s kitchen, and the years she spent raising children and preparing family meals.
Because the residents’ work schedules differ greatly, and many are at their job locations during breakfast and lunchtime, Ms. B. prepares brown-bag meals for residents each day as well, and she maintains a well-stocked cupboard for residents (who cook for the house on the weekends) to prepare meals.
Ms. B.’s commitment to the wellbeing of the residents is most evident in her philosophy of soul food. To her, having access to good food is an integral part of the life recovery program at Gemeinschaft Home. The majority of residents arrive with at least one year of prison food behind them, and she argues that a little taste of home can help to ease some of the anxiety and stress that many individuals experience upon leaving prison.
Prior to her arrival three years ago, residents consumed meals prepared mostly from pre-packaged, processed, and frozen ingredients, but Ms. B. saw an opportunity to give residents tastier, more nutritious foods, including many of her own recipes as well as those shared by residents—“They teach me!” she proclaims proudly. Her reputation is well known among some prospective residents, who have heard about her home-cooked meals from their friends or acquaintances who have lived at Gemeinschaft Home.
Ms. B. stresses that good food is healing for the soul, and she points out that no matter what issue an individual resident may face, he knows that he will eat well today and every day he lives at Gemeinschaft Home. In addition to the daily meals, Ms. B. also prepares special dinners on major holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Day, and Easter.
The gratitude from residents is readily apparent, according to Ms. B., who claims she often hears comments such as “This tastes just like my mom used to make!” or “This is the same way my grandmother made it!”
While she has made more money working in other positions, Ms. B. says that no other job has ever been as rewarding. The residents make her job worthwhile, and she is happy to contribute to their success in the program.
While she knows that residents have a long journey ahead of them, with a number of issues confronting them, she asks herself, “If I were in their shoes, how would I want to be treated?” The answer can be found in the main ingredient of her cooking—love—and she always dishes out an extra helping.