Waking up at 4:30 a.m. to cook breakfast for 400 people may not sound like a typical summer vacation, but teenagers from Westgate Chapel are enjoying every minute of it.
"It can be stressful, but it's really rewarding," said Nicole Ross, 14, a freshman at Central Catholic High School.
Nicole and 15 others took over the kitchen of Madison Food Service and Community Center at 5:30 Friday morning. Since Thursday, they've been working about 13 hours a day, cooking and serving meals to residents of Cherry Street Mission Ministries' three shelters.
The church group of 30 to 40 teens and adult chaperones arrived downtown Wednesday night, and will have cooked more than 2,100 meals during their four-day trip.
It's a unique mission for Westgate Chapel, because the project is in the church's own backyard.
"We're starting to rethink how we spend our money, because it's so much money per student to go away on a mission trip," said Elizabeth Sorge, a caterer who leads the youths in the kitchen.
So they decided instead to serve the poor here. The group sleeps on cots and mattresses at Collingwood Presbyterian Church.
"It's actually more cramped than a regular missions trip," said Chloe Baxter, 15, a sophomore at Springfield High School. But she wasn't complaining. "I love Westgate. We all get along so well."
The group is split into sections for different tasks, with some in the kitchen, some painting and renovating facilities, and others documenting the trip on camera and video.
As the kitchen contingent prepared beefsteak sandwiches, salad, and about 500 cookies, kitchen supervisor Laurie Endricks was able to stand back and relax.
"Today, I don't have to do anything," she said. "They've got a really good work ethic."
She was pleased with the quality of food being cooked. "We're not living off of donated food. It's nice stuff, fresh stuff, and different."
Mrs. Sorge said Westgate Chapel donated about $8,000 to $10,000 of food for the meals served during the mission.
After the meals are cooked in the community center's kitchen, some are taken to the Sparrow's Nest shelter and Good Samaritan shelters, both part of Cherry Street Mission Ministries.
Men eating lunch at the center were impressed with the menu.
"This is a good lunch," said Frank Wells, who has been staying at the Cherry Street men's shelter for abut six months. "This is a lunch I would buy."
A man at another table piped up: "Another thing is that the food is fresh."
"The kids are all great," Mr. Wells said. "I wish they could come back more often."
As lunch was being served, Mrs. Sorge was already planning that night's dinner.
That's when the students would join the residents for their meal. Every dinner on the trip is a group dinner, followed by a ministry hour with music.
"It was really hard at first, because they don't really want to talk," Chloe said of the residents.
But eventually everyone was able to speak easily.
"They want to teach you how to play card games, they want to teach you to play dominoes, and they want to know about you and your family. It's really great," she said.
Two nights ago, the teens served chicken lasagna for dinner.
And while Chloe said it was one of the more difficult things to cook, the work paid off.
"A guy came up to us and said, 'My mother used to make this,'" she said, adding, "And that made it all worth it."
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