When Karen Bryant and Becky Bongiovi met at a New Jersey high school decades ago, they probably didn’t realize how intertwined their lives would become. At one point, the two even worked in the same field (information technology) at the same firm.
Although they’ve since moved on, their friendship has remained steadfast.
One of the things that has continued to bind them is their shared commitment to volunteering. Most recently, that’s taken the form of coordinating other volunteers at Midland Adult Services, a nonprofit which eases the transition from school to adulthood for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“We’ve both always felt a desire to give back,” says Bongiovi. “Giving of yourself and your time can be just as valuable as giving money,” adds Bryant.
Both are interested in healthy eating — Bongiovi enjoys farm-to-table cooking and Bryant is sensitive to the importance of diets because several members of her family have diabetes — so they’ve made it a point to seek out food-related opportunities. “At first, we were working with a soup kitchen but we wanted to take it a step further,” says Bryant. “We started assembling bagged lunches on our own to help those who couldn’t make it to the kitchen. We got such great feedback that we were inspired to see what else we could do closer to home.”
They stumbled on the Cooking Creations initiative from Jersey Cares, a Points of Light’s HandsOn Network affiliate nonprofit that creates programs to bring together volunteers and organizations in need of help. Now, this dynamic duo visits Midland Adult Services twice a month, once to the women’s residence and once to the men’s residence.
Typically, Bongiovi says she plans both menus, making sure they “introduce different spices or ethnic themes. “It’s been great to turn my hobby into a volunteer opportunity,” she adds. “This is fun for me. I love pouring through cookbooks and magazines and Pinterest.”
Meanwhile, Bryant gets in touch with the other five or six volunteers to assign and schedule tasks like food prep and table service. “As a leader, I try to put myself in the place of the volunteers,” says Bryant. “I get an understanding of their personalities and what kind of jobs they like. Some people want to stay in the background, so maybe I have them do some cooking or help with molding pumpkin spice cookies. Others like to get out there and mingle with the residents. For me, I get the satisfaction of seeing all of these people enjoying the fruits of their labors.”
Their visits also gift Midland staff members with a much-needed break for the afternoon, while residents benefit from the social interaction and life skills that communal cooking offers. And, of course, everyone partakes of a great meal.
It can be a challenge, Bongiovi admits, to cook for 12 to 15 people on a budget limited to $25, but by turning to regional producers she’s managed to come up with a tempting — and healthful — array that ranges from winter stews to grilled entrees during the summer. Because of their involvement with local farmers, in fact, Bongiovi and Bryant, were recently treated to a cruise to the Caribbean by Cabot Creamery, a dairy cooperative.
The cruise was a learning experience for these two volunteers, according to Bryant. “It was interesting to discover the impact of social media, for example,” she says. “By posting pictures on Facebook or Instagram, you can get your friends curious about what you’re doing and spark them to get out there in their own community.”
For Bongiovi, relaxing under the sunny skies with so many other volunteers gave her further inspiration. “I’m not going to go back to school and become a chef,” she laughs. “But realizing that I can challenge myself to make creative meals in ways other than professionally has been an eye-opener. I feel really lucky to have discovered the chance and I’d recommend following your passion to anyone else looking for a volunteering opportunity.”