By Jennifer Johnson
Families gather in kitchens: for cereal and coffee and a last check of homework before school, for dinner together in the evening, for a snack and a conversation before bed. The kitchen is the center of every home, so when Becky Ahlberg created My Safe Harbor, she knew its building had to include one.
My Safe Harbor, a nonprofit organization originally launched by Anaheim (California) First Christian Church, offers a variety of programs to support, educate, and empower the women of Anaheim. Although the church is only miles from the tourism and wealth of Disneyland, its neighborhood is home to gangs, crime, and poverty. The area also has one of the highest populations of single mothers in the state, and My Safe Harbor exists to work with these moms as a long-term solution to systemic problems.
“The statistics are startling,” Ahlberg says. “Seventy-five percent of gang members come from single mother homes. Seventy-two percent of families below the poverty line are headed by single moms, and 70 percent of high school dropouts, teen pregnancies, teen suicides, and runaways come from single mother homes. So we believe the best way to change our city is to change these moms.”
Since its launch in 2008, My Safe Harbor has done this through three programs: a weekly Mother’s Club that offers informal, fun classes in parenting, cooking, and crafts; Enrichment Electives that dig deeper with workshops on topics like home first aid, intro to computers, immigration issues, and home management; and the Strong Families Institute (SFI) that offers an intensive 32-week experience to cohorts of ladies working on personal, relational, and spiritual growth.
Whether it’s demonstrating kid-friendly snacks in Mother’s Club or hosting a meal before SFI, each of My Safe Harbor’s programs involves cooking—and each one offers the women who attend a chance to gather in the kitchen as a family.
“Our primary job is to develop trust so these women can take the big risk of changing their lives,” Ahlberg says. “In our culture, eating together is about much more than consuming food; it’s about sharing our lives. So just as the kitchen is the heart of the home, our kitchen is the heart of our building, and we use it to build relationships.”
More than $7,000 in donations to the memorial fund for Ahlberg’s father, who died in 2011, as well as a $9,500 grant from Home Depot provided new cabinetry, appliances, and sinks for the kitchen in 2012.
This beautiful workspace is used almost every day. Ahlberg will often arrive early to make a batch or two of muffins before Mother’s Club so the aroma of baking fills the building and welcomes women as they arrive. She’ll often provide copies of the recipe, in both Spanish and English, and encourage the ladies to try making them at home.
Awards banquets, special event dinners, and committee planning lunches are hosted out of the kitchen. During classes on cooking techniques and meal planning, the women are invited into the kitchen to try new skills—and to help clean up afterward.
“It’s not that these women don’t know how to cook, it’s that they don’t know how to make American food, which is what their kids want to eat,” Ahlberg says. “And many of them were never taught how to plan a meal or stick to a grocery budget. They don’t think they can do it, but we teach them that they’re very capable—and not only that, their children can learn how to help too.
“One of the revelatory moments for them is when we help them understand that loving their kids doesn’t mean being a martyr and doing everything themselves; if they love their kids they will teach them new skills.”
One of the most popular Enrichment Electives is Ahlberg’s two-day class on how to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
“Many of these families receive a food basket around Thanksgiving so they can make a holiday dinner, and these ladies have no idea what to do with it,” she says. “People would be scandalized to know how many frozen turkeys are thrown away.”
On the first day she demonstrates how to make stuffing and prepare the turkey; on day two she shows them how to make side dishes like mashed potatoes and a green bean casserole. After the women enjoy a sampling of the meal, she explains how to prepare a casserole with the leftovers and use the turkey carcass to make soup.
Not every woman will decide to cook a huge holiday meal, of course, but it’s one more way to achieve Ahlberg’s primary goal: building trust and creating small wins so the women will take bigger risks that lead to long-term change.
“When they discover they can prepare healthy meals and enjoy them with their children, that builds self-esteem,” Ahlberg says. “Self-esteem doesn’t happen because I tell you you’re wonderful; it happens when you grow in competence and confidence. So I show them how to peel a potato and let them try; they realize it’s easy and then they teach their child to do it. These moments seem small but you’re building self-esteem because you’re saying, ‘I want to include you and I know you can do this.’
“When they learn new skills, and they’re parenting a little better, and they have managed their time so they have time for themselves, and they make good friends with other ladies learning the same things—that is what builds the self-esteem that empowers them to make significant changes in who they are and what they want, and that is what can break the generational cycles of poverty and crime.”
Ahlberg says that often by the third week of Mother’s Club, she’ll arrive early only to discover another woman is already there making the muffins from her translated recipe.
“In our homes, the kitchen is where life happens,” she says. “At My Safe Harbor, it’s one place where life change happens.”
Jennifer Johnson, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor, is a freelance editor and writer living outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.