On a Saturday night days before Christmas, Lazarus House volunteer Paula McKenna is standing in the kitchen of a North Andover home effortlessly managing a group of animated teens who are cracking eggs, shredding loaves of bread and full of questions about the recipe they are trying to follow.
Less than an hour later, the result is French Toast that will provide breakfast for more than 100 guests in the Lazarus House Soup Kitchen in Lawrence. But McKenna knows the evening will also nourish the moral and ethical growth of the boys who have all voluntarily chosen to give up a weekend night.
“I wanted to bring good people together who want to help and put their energy to work,” said McKenna, who is now reaping a harvest far greater than she might have imagined when she and her friend, Jenn Watson, started “Paula’s Parties with a Purpose” two years ago.
The women had taken a small group to Lazarus House for a day of service as part of the teens’ CCD confirmation class.
“We went to Lazarus House to just help move furniture and we realized we could do more,” said Ryan McKenna, Paula’s son.
“The kids came to us and said, ‘How do we help?’,” said McKenna, and while it was the women’s idea to come up with a plan to cook for Lazarus House, both say the real credit goes to the teens who now meet about once a month and have now made nearly 3,000 meals.
“We went to Lazarus House and as we went back, we could see the impact we were having. It made us all want to continue and expand it,” said Joey Watson, Jenn’s son. That small, initial group spread the word on social media and told friends who eagerly wanted to join.
The group has tripled in size and on this pre-Christmas night, it was standing room only.
“It is a testament to these boys,” said Jenn Watson. “They are really doing it on their own. No one is forcing them.”
One week they may make pasta, some weeks it’s meat sauce, and others might be jambalaya.
“No one makes these kids come,” added McKenna. “There is a lot of joy in this, it’s been very infectious. It’s been a beautiful thing because it gives them a sense of purpose. Some sense they are affecting some kind of small change, which is really I think why they come.”
Yet behind McKenna’s modesty and “anyone could have done this” demeanor, she embodies the truism that one person can make an incredible difference. The idea that started small is now an ever-growing community of caring. Watson calls her “a force of nature.”
“We have been doing them once a month,” said McKenna. “The purpose is for the kids to do it. The adults help, just by the means of ‘This is how you chop an onion; this is how you sauté something.’ We have gone from making 50 servings an evening to anywhere between 150 and 200 servings.”
“I have learned the power of community,” said Ryan McKenna. “We have the ability to make change. We are nothing special, but just by making breakfast for 200 people, we are helping make an impact.”
While Lazarus House has many volunteers essential to its needs and programs, “Paula’s Parties” and the teens stand out.
“The power of this movement has far exceeded anything we initially envisioned and has made a real difference in the lives of our Guests,” said Marcy Furse, Lazarus House Coordinator of Volunteers.
Paula McKenna and Jenn Watson both believe you raise children by living your life as you would want them to live theirs, and that even this simple meal preparation is shaping the lives of the teens for years to come.
“It’s being able to share the gifts we have, and teach those values by example,” said Watson. “I think they get a lot out of it but I don’t think they will truly appreciate what they get out of it for several years. They know they are helping someone else, and as they get older, they will better appreciate the impact of that.”
McKenna now hopes to inspire and to spread this model to other communities. She offers to mentor anyone who wants to start “parties” of their own.
“It has given me joy to have these kids feel like they can affect change in this very cold society that we are living in right now,” said McKenna. “As a mom, I am bolstered that this is our future and these kids care. I think they are going to carry this through their lives.”
Paul McKenna may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.