Mwelwa Kisanga Arsel, Ramadhani Ngolo, and Iluta Shabani have been hard at work preparing Thanksgiving dinner. The college-aged students from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Arsel) and Tanzania (Ngolo, Shabani) are preparing more than 80 meals, many of which will be sent to families and individuals living in the Sharpstown and Gulfton areas. What's remarkable is the trio just learned to cook over the past few months.
These are the students of PX Project, a program created by St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Sharpstown. It's designed to empower youth ages 16-24 who aren't in school and experiencing difficulty entering the workforce. The program's way in? The culinary arts. Their teacher is Adam Garcia, former chef de cuisine of Rosie Cannonball, Coltivare, and the Pass & Provisions.
"It's something in me that wanted to pass on what I learned," says Garcia about making the leap from restaurants to becoming the director of operations of the nonprofit program. The jump came after Garcia spoke with his friend, St. Luke's Director of Outreach Meredith Davis, who helped devise the program as a way to take action in their concentrated community inside Sharpstown and Gulfton, where 48 percent of people live below the poverty line.
"I said, 'There's no way that I'm gonna get someone of Adam's caliber to sign onto something like this,'" says Davis. "But he actually started to consider it. I pinch myself all the time to have someone like Adam who not only makes unbelievable food but has a heart like that."
The PX Project launched in early 2020 when Arsel, Ngolo, and Shabani were identified as recruits by community members who had their ear to the street. After agreeing to enter the program, the students, who are paid stipends that increase as they attain more skills, started meeting with Garcia five days a week for 16 weeks on September 14. They learned safety and sanitation first, slowly building their knowledge as they got more accustomed to the kitchen. Knife skills and nutrition education came next, and soon enough they were sautéing foods and butchering chickens.
With that came meal preparation. Nearly four months into the program, the students had made 9,000 meals, many of which go to local families and friends who don't get consistent meals. They have favorite dishes to prepare, too.
"They love tacos," says Garcia. Other big hits include pasta with red sauce or meat sauce, and fried chicken sandwiches. "We try to make the meal hearty," adds Davis. "This might be their only meal of the day, so the more proteins and carbs we can shove into that box the better."
For Thanksgiving they've been preparing whole turkeys and making stuffing, corn casserole, green beans, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, turkey gravy, and rolls. People had the opportunity to order a to-go Thanksgiving meal for themselves and/or donate one to a family in the Sharpstown/Gulfton area. That feeds right into the mission of St. Luke's, which for years has been serving Turkey-Day dinner for local families. While in years past the church got everyone together in a hall, this year it's delivering meals to homes.
"We're looking for ways to be present and available," says Davis. "We've been doing a lot of door-to-door since Covid, from delivering groceries to sanitizing products and all kinds of basic-need items. We're just adding Thanksgiving to that."
As for the students, thanks to Garcia, they have the skills necessary to enter the restaurant industry. Down the line, that might look like their own standalone concept, as Garcia says through PX Project they're hoping to open a full-service restaurant/cafe in River Oaks where students would continue learning while leading. He knows they're just about ready for that next step.
"They have all the talent and potential and intellect that they need. They may just need someone to say, 'Yeah, I can help with that,'" says Garcia. "We're just willing to put in the work to navigate things."
For more information about PX Project, including ways to sponsor students and help, visit its website.