Erica Jones, director of nutrition and food services, prepares meals to be served at the opening of a renovated kitchen at Roy Maas Youth Alternatives' La Puerta emergency shelter. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

Roy Maas Youth Alternatives, which shelters neglected and abused children, opened its renovated kitchen – stocked with new stoves, four refrigerators, and more storage space – in the La Puerta emergency shelter on Tuesday.

The new kitchen will allow the nonprofit to produce 43,000 meals a year, compared to the 28,000-meal capacity of the old kitchen.

The emergency shelter houses 16 beds for youth who are transitioning to more permanent housing. The kitchen also will provide meals for two other facilities operated by Roy Maas Youth Alternatives (RYMA), the Bridge emergency shelter and the Centro Seguro drop-in center.

The nonprofit recently expanded its space but ran out of money to redo the 35-year-old kitchen. It received a $100,000 grant from Impact San Antonio to create the new space.

RMYA CEO Bill Wilkinson said that the renovation was about more than producing more food. Children at the shelter will get cooking lessons and prepare meals themselves.

 “We needed to create a food service environment where, not only would we be able to prepare more nutritious food from more natural ingredients, but the kids can also participate in the process, so that we can teach them those critical life skills,” he said.

Erica Jones, the organization’s director of nutrition services, said the new kitchen will allow the staff to create more nutritious food with fresh produce now that they have the refrigerator space to store it. She will be leading cooking workshops once a month.

“There is a lot of research that shows adverse childhood experiences lead to poor health outcomes,” Jones said. “When they leave here, I know that we have left a mark on reducing these outcomes. That is my big vision.”

With the help of three girls who live in the shelter, Jones served an eggplant stir fry and quesadilla lunch at Tuesday’s opening, which was attended by Impact San Antonio members; Ivalis Meza, Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s director of policy and public engagement; and State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio).

Roy Maas Youth Alternatives opened its renovated kitchen in the La Puerta emergency shelter on Tuesday.

Impact San Antonio, a collective grantmaking organization of local women, recognized the potential for the kitchen project to have a significant impact on the children RMYA serve.

“The basic need of nutrition can feed the soul, feed the mind, feed the heart of these children, and helps with their healing and their rehabilitation,” said Lora Watts, an Impact San Antonio board member. “A lot of these kid’s meals have come from boxes and bags, so this allows them to actually learn about proper nutrition.”

Julie Strentzsch, chief program officer, also hopes that the kitchen can teach the children about taking care of themselves, but also about what it means to be part of a household when they move on from RMYA care.

“The kitchen is the heart of a home,” Strentzsch said. “It is so important that we give the youth that come to us the possibility of what a home can look like. When they go back to their family, or an adoptive family, or wherever they end up, they can have a sense of that and know they can create a home themselves one day.”

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Laura Morales

Laura Morales is a freshman studying journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a contributor to The Daily Texan.