Philly Bridge & Jawn teach and pay Kensington teenagers to cook

When Brian Belknap spread the word that his new Kensington nonprofit, Philly Bridge & Jawn (PB&J), was holding a weeklong pilot program in November, he wasn’t sure how many teenagers would actually show up.

He reached out to teenagers he met during his work running the LEAP program at McPherson Library, and handed out flyers to kids coming and going on the El and to people hanging out on neighborhood corners. Belknap told them that PB&J would bring together teenagers ages 12 to 19 and teach them to cook food for each other. They would be paid $20 each day they showed up, and after each meal a local nonprofit or service provider would visit and introduce themselves to the teenagers.

PB&J strives to give teenagers a productive, consistent and safe environment while addressing local food insecurity.

“The enthusiasm for the program really kind of blew me away.”

Brian Belknap

Belknap originally hoped 20 participants would go to PB&J’s temporary home at the Impact Services Corporation building during the first week of November. Instead, 31 teenagers showed up on the first day.

Belknap had to turn some away because they just didn’t have room.

“What I thought would happen, though, is if teenagers come in and they can’t get into the program, they won’t come back,” he said. “And that never happened at all.”

Interest grew, and those who entered the PB&J kitchen wanted more.

The pilot program engaged nearly 50 teenagers throughout the week. It started on Wednesday and by the last day on Sunday, teenagers lined up three hours before PB&J opened at 4 p.m.

“The enthusiasm for the program has really blown me away,” Belknap said. “I’ve never really been a part of anything like this.”

» READ MORE: This not-for-profit pays Kensington teenagers to cook for each other

PB&J is funded primarily by a $10,000 grant from the Kensington Community Sustainability Fund and partners with New Kensington Community Development Corporation’s Nourish program to provide food and cooking instruction. Belknap aims for PB&J to eventually become a permanent, year-round program that meets five days a week.

Lamar Dancy, 17, has known Belknap for years after working together at the McPherson Library. When Belknap told Dancy about his new program, Dancy thought it sounded like a good idea.

“I don’t really know how to cook,” he said, usually sticking to noodles when he cooks for himself (though he recently learned how to fry chicken). “You get paid to cook… Who wouldn’t?”

“You get paid to cook… Who wouldn’t?”

Lamar Dancy, 17

Dancy went to PB&J with a friend and his little brother, but he still felt a little nervous with all the new faces. The first night they made tacos and nachos and he started to feel more comfortable with the people he was working with. It helped that the food they prepared had some teenagers down for seconds and asking for leftovers to take home as well.

“It was very good,” he said of all the food they prepared, which during the week included dishes like quesadillas, stir-fries and chicken sandwiches.

Something to entertain teenagers

Kumara Robinson, 18, was surprised by her favorite meal of the week: fried cauliflower with buffalo sauce. “I thought it was going to be gross, but it was actually really good,” she said.

Belknap gave Robinson a PB&J flyer when she was on her way to school one day. The stipend money seemed like a nice gain, but she was more interested in the chance to do something different.

“I like trying new things,” she said. At first, she found it challenging to work with so many others in a tight space, especially with other 12-year-old participants. But after settling in, Robinson made some new friends. And after meeting representatives of the Yay Clay art studio after a cookout one night, she expects to visit them sometime.

Robinson said teenagers typically don’t have many options for activities or places to go after school outside of sports and clubs, which makes programs like PB&J, Yay Clay or something else free and youth-focused feel especially exciting.

“Usually I just do school work and fall asleep,” she said, but she expects to be back for the next PB&J show.

Dancy feels the same way. He has a job at the library to keep him busy after school, but he notices that since there isn’t much else to do, his friends and brother often either sit around bored or do destructive things for fun.

“I like trying new things.”

Hazard Robinson, 18

“I know friends who don’t really do anything,” he said, noting that he was impressed after the group visited Ride Free, a community organization that offers, among other things, a free music studio for youth.

“That’s why I told Mr. Bryan that it was a very good idea. Teenagers need something to entertain them. There’s nothing to entertain teenagers now but their phones… It’s just school, and once you get home there’s just nothing to do.”

PB&J plans to return for another week of programming from April 10-14. They will move to a larger outdoor space at the Cantina La Martina restaurant on D Street so that more teenagers can participate. Belknap hopes to secure a permanent location for the program soon and wants to have daily programming by next fall with 35 teens a day.

Until then, Dancy will patiently await the return of PB&J in the spring.

“I didn’t really bother Mr. Bryan about it, but we just waited,” Dancy said. “He said it once [happening] in april we were just like ‘oh my gosh this is a bit long.’

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