Kristen Kucij, a staff member for Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady, steps up to serve hot dinners to New York families
Kristen Kucij never expected a Boys & Girls Club kitchen would prepare and serve 150 gallons of hearty goulash during a pandemic. But as kids, teens and their families face an unprecedented emergency, she’s staying laser focused on immediate needs like healthy, hot dinners.
“Knowing that kids and families are in great need of healthy meals keeps me motivated,” said Kristen, who began working for Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady about 14 years ago. She serves as the unit director of two Club sites in public housing that serve about 75 youth each day.
Two months before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered New York state, Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady opened the blue doors of a 40,000-square-foot Clubhouse between two of the cities most distressed neighborhoods. More than 200 youth found a safe place at the Adeline Wright Graham Clubhouse prior to government orders to stay home from schools, Clubs and other activities to help control spread of the deadly disease.
In mid-March, the Clubhouse was transformed into an emergency response headquarters for Schenectady County government and 12 nonprofit agencies. County officials, emergency responders, social workers and nonprofit volunteers set up a massive relief effort in the state-of-the-art facility.
Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady CEO Shane Bargy said the Clubhouse has various areas and separate rooms where workers can keep a safe distance from each other as they answer telephone hotlines, collect data, and hold confidential conversations. In the gym, large pallets of supplies are used to fill bags that are distributed to doorsteps. A refrigerated truck parked outside the Clubhouse holds deliveries from the food bank.
“We’re so happy that this building was ready for this situation,” Shane said. “It’s perfect to handle this crisis.”
Kristen, who has prior experience in the restaurant industry, works alongside a chef in the Clubhouse kitchen to plan menus and oversee preparation of hot dinners. The local school system is serving breakfast and lunch but many families relied on the Club for dinner even before the pandemic.
Kristen's day begins about 10 a.m. as she boils water, opens canned vegetables and performs other tasks to keep the kitchen running smoothly. Her team recently prepared four giant pots of pasta sauce to serve ziti and meatballs to 300 people.
“There are a lot of things we cannot control during this pandemic but we can take care of our own people,” Kristen said. “There are so many caring and driven people who are going to get our community through this.”
Kristen’s 20-year-old son, Foster, volunteers in the kitchen three days a week. He’s a culinary student at SUNY Schenectady County Community College and shares his mom’s passion for serving the community.
“When so many families are suffering, it’s comforting to do something good alongside my son,” she said. “It keeps him positive, too.”
Kristen finds it difficult not seeing kids and teens at the Club every day. She worries about families with parents who have been laid off from work and fears not being able to shield youth from news about the sick and dying. When she finishes meal prep, Kristen sends emails and hosts video calls to check in with families and maintain connections.
Sometimes, Kristen’s husband takes away her laptop when she is still working late into the evening. When she’s going to sleep, she thinks about tasks for the next morning such as taking bread out of the freezer. Kristen has to remind herself that she has stepped into an important role keeping people fed and healthy.
“By being in the kitchen, I’m less focused on what I can’t do and more focused on what I can do to help,” she said. “I need to take a step back every once in a while and say ‘I did do enough to help today.’”