Food and love. They share an unbreakable bond, a connection that spans decades and distance—including from Mt. Washington to Braddock. This is that kind of love story.
During the school year, the Braddock Youth Project (BYP) is the after-school home away from home for 15 local boys and girls, a program designed to develop character and work skills. Joyce Renne has made it her mission to develop their taste buds, too.
Four days a week while school is in session, “Mrs. Renne” prepares home-cooked meals for the kids as well as the staff of six. But not just everyday meals, because, as Joyce sees it, these are not just everyday kids. She loves to cook and entertain in her Mt. Washington home, and her goal is to introduce the youth at BYP to foods they might not otherwise experience, with fresh ingredients, prepared with care. “Czech food, German, Asian, Mexican. I want them to be able to taste the good stuff, real, not Taco Bell,” Joyce says. “Every time they get something new, it’s instantly their favorite.”
Joyce’s son Brendan (in photo above; she kindly refuses to be photographed) serves at BYP as part of AmeriCorps, which is how she became introduced to the kids. A few years ago, Brendan and Joyce entered BYP’s annual Collard Greens Cook-Off with their entry, Mean Joe Greens. “I always cook, and always taught my kids to give back,” Joyce says. “I started giving my son some treats to take to the kids and he would tell me how they just went crazy and gobbled them down. And he told me some of them weren’t really eating as well as they should at home. I wanted them to have great food to eat.”
Her meals started with the basics, but the cuisine got more adventurous as time went on, growing into more of an educational experience. Joyce credits her son. “Brendan not only helps me prepare it, but he teaches them what it is, the country it came from, and stories about the origin of the recipe—they love the learning and the food.” Joyce says, laughing, “They’re Brendan’s young gastronomes.”
On cooking days, Joyce wakes up at 3 a.m. to begin work in her kitchen. If she’s not finished by the time Brendan can swing by and pick it up, she and her husband Paul drive to Braddock to make sure the food is waiting when the kids arrive. It’s time-intensive not just for the cooking and shopping, but also because she wants to make sure the kids have plenty, and presentation is important to her. “I’ll make 100 fresh rolls or a large meat and cheese platter. And I don’t want anything to be just dumped in a bowl. I try to make it look as good as it would look if I was entertaining at my home.”
What’s been the most challenging food she prepared for the kids? Sushi. “I made 200 pieces of sushi, just crab and shrimp because for most of them it was their first time, “Joyce says. “Some of them ate endless sushi and some ate just a couple of pieces, but they all tried it.”
Jessica Gumbert, program coordinator for BYP, which is now celebrating its 10th year, said the kids love what Joyce does for them. “They’re so grateful to her. Everything’s home cooked and everything’s elaborate. And she makes sure they have enough to bring home leftovers to share with their families.” Gumbert says the kids are always looking for ways to thank their Mrs. Renne, and at the end of the year made her a giant cookie that they all signed in icing. Throughout the year, they send her thank you cards.
Talk to Joyce and she’ll tell you that she’s the one who benefits. “I’ve gotten more out of doing this than they ever could. I’ve thrown dinner parties at my house for years and years, and I’ve never had guests nearly as gracious and grateful as these kids,” Joyce says. “They don’t take anything for granted, always sharing, and they have each other’s backs. If one of them is sick and doesn’t make it that day, the kids make sure to put food aside and get it to them. It’s just wonderful.”
Having been introduced to the delights of home cooking and such a wide range of cuisines, is it possible Joyce has inspired some young chefs? “I’m hoping it will inspire someone and I’ll be anxious to see. I know it will give them some wonderful food memories and make them more open to trying and appreciating different foods, “Joyce says. “Most of all, I hope it will make them more inclined to pay it forward. We have so many kids in this country who don’t have enough good food to eat. If more people pitch in, it wouldn’t have to be that way.”
Later this year, Joyce’s son Brendan will marry his fiancee Thais. The kids from Braddock Youth Project will be at the wedding, celebrating with their Mrs. Renne, and adding a sweet highlight to their love story.
Braddock Youth Project and its sister organization, Wilkinsburg Youth Project, are housed under the Department of Human Services, Office of Community Services, and are KEYS Service Corps AmeriCorps Programs.