Caritas Village is an all-in-one cultural arts center and restaurant/coffee shop in Binghampton, a neighborhood in Memphis. It serves as a home for after-school programs, a health clinic, ESL classes, etc. All of these benefits are free exclusively for the people who live in Binghampton, and the restaurant is pay-what-you-can.
Caritas also has an artist-in-residency program, providing a local artist affordable housing across the street. The program supports the artist for a year, helping them develop their art and grow in their skills. The art is intended to benefit the community, and this year, the artist is also the chef.
The founder of Caritas, Onie, is one of the greatest women ever; she started Caritas from the ground up. Everyone in the area knows her, and she has a way of developing a personal relationship with every person she meets. She says that “art is more important to children in poverty than a loaf of bread,” emphasizing the importance of creativity in a child’s life.
I volunteer at Caritas twice a week in an after-school program that my friend started, tutoring kids in the area and helping them express themselves through theater and art. While working with rambunctious kids can be exhausting at times (especially when you give them candy at holiday parties), knowing each other on an individual level and learning more about each other’s lives are experiences that are hard to find anywhere else.
I learn so much from these kids, like how to hit the Quan oh-so-perfectly, the best rap music to get hype to, and that in order to make a difference in their life, you must work with the kids individually over time, proving to them that you are here to stay and will not leave just because they frustrate you at times.
These kids have definitely challenged me and made me question whether or not I want to stay at Caritas. I’ve thought about volunteering at other places, how much less stressful other sites could be. But, again, that rare connection with a child is unique to Caritas, and I realized that those children probably expect me to leave, to be just another volunteer who tried to “help” and failed.
But I can’t come to Caritas with the mindset that I can help these kids; I must go knowing that they are helping me more than I could ever help them.
Earlier this year, the chef/artist-in-residence at Caritas debuted his new cookbook Cooking with Soul by making a dinner that incorporated every dish in his book. It was free and open to the whole community, so naturally, after our program, the kids and other college students I work with rushed to get free food.
In this one event, the mission of Caritas was beautifully evident: “to break down walls of hostility between cultures, to build bridges of love and trust between the rich and those made poor, and to provide a positive alternative to the street corners for the neighborhood children.”
People of all ages, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc., ate together in one room, sharing conversations and bonding over homemade Southern comfort food. It was almost like a scene out of a movie. The community built bridges, came together, and embraced its diversity, and I realized that the food itself became part of the art in Caritas, influencing the community for the better.
Caritas Village is my home. Where else can you walk in to a building, have kids screaming your name and running to hug you, be surrounded by inspiring art, and know that you will always be accepted with open arms? You’re right — nowhere. Caritas feeds every part of the soul, making you feel content just by being within its walls.
Volunteering there has pushed me and changed me for the better. I would’ve never expected the impact it would have on me. But as soon as I come to the doors, I am faced with a constant reminder that is now embedded in me: “Love never fails.”