Serving self-confidence: Cafe 361 gives back to Cedar Rapids community

Young women learn leadership, self-confidence and more while preparing meals

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On a day off from school, you might not expect middle school and high school girls to spend their time giving back to the community. But at Cafe 361 in Cedar Rapids, a group of young girls did just that last Monday — and it wasn’t the first time, either.

For nearly four years, Cafe 361 has been preparing meals for guests at First Congregational United Church of Christ in the Wellington Heights neighborhood of Cedar Rapids. It started in the summer of 2013, when church staff wanted to give girls another after school option in addition to the Boys & Girls Club, which also meets at the church.

Heather Woodin, director of children, youth and family ministries at the time and now a member of Cafe 361’s committee, brainstormed with the girls on how they could spend their time. Together they decided they wanted to give back and connect with their community.


“One thing we try to teach the girls is that no matter how much or little you have, you can always give back,” Woodin said.

One of the ways they knew how to give back was with a warm meal, so the girls starting getting together twice a month to cook for the community. Since then, the organization has “grown exponentially,” said Cindy Nicholson, now director of Cafe 361.

“It started out pretty small,” she continued, with just middle schoolers and 40-or-so regular patrons. But now they’ve grown to include girls from fifth grade through seniors in high school and are serving close to 100 guests each month.

Many of the girls who started with the group in 2013 are still coming today, Nicholson added.

“We’ve seen girls just absolutely blossom from year one to four,” she said. “They’re more comfortable in the kitchen and have improved their speaking skills. ... It’s amazing how far they’ve come along.”

It is free for girls to join Cafe 361, and the organization has developed enough funding through donations and grants to offer some small, $150 scholarships for school-related expenses for girls in need.

They’ve also developed partnerships with businesses in the community, including with local chefs who volunteer their time to help teach the girls cooking skills.

At least once a month, girls research, prepare, cook and serve a meal to guests at the church for a $5 suggested donation, or sometimes $10 for special events.


Last Monday they were joined by Cobble Hill sous chef Elliot Brown, the Pig and Porter sous chef Jake Wegmann and chef Brett Scholl of Lincoln Wine Bar in Mount Vernon, to cook an Asian themed meal that included spring rolls, Thai chicken, coconut rice pudding and almond cookies made from scratch.

Not only are the girls given the opportunity to learn about the process of meal preparation — from cooking to clean up and everywhere in between — they also learn leadership, communication, teamwork and problem solving skills while gaining self-confidence, friendships and positive role models in the process.

After cooking the meals, the girls are expected to stand up in front of guests and introduce themselves. During Monday’s event, they were expected to tell everyone about a woman they admire and afterward join guests at their tables and keep the conversation going.

“It’s a whole lot more than cooking. We’re like a big family,” Nicholson said. “I think we’ve helped them build self confidence, feel more comfortable to try new things and explore their talents.”

“You can see the difference it’s making in these girls’ lives,” Woodin agreed.

“It’s phenomenal for everyone involved,” said Jane Spande, First Congregational’s moderator. “It’s been a really good connection to the neighborhood. ... They’ve just done miracles, I think.”

The group hopes to continue to expand, both in size and scope of work — providing more meals to those in need through area shelters or the church’s meal program, for example. They currently have 15 regular members and would like to recruit more girls, but are unfortunately limited by the number of girls they can fit in the church’s kitchen, Nicholson said.

“We’re a one of a kind program,” she added. “I would encourage other like minded programs to venture into something like this and I would be happy to help get it off the ground.”


Cafe 361 Upcoming Events

Friday, Feb. 17: Mardi Gras cajun style dinner with mini quiche, jambalaya, rice, cajun style vegetables, cornbread and praline dessert

Wednesday, March 15: Breakfast for dinner pajama party with mini biscuits and sausage gravy, egg casserole with bacon, fruit and caramel rolls

Friday, April 21: A taste of India fundraiser dinner with naan with dipping sauce, butter chicken, rice, indian vegetables with curry, kulfi frozen dessert and Rava Ladoo ($10 suggested donation)

Friday, May 19: Cinco de Mayo dinner with chips with queso and salsa, tex mex casserole with mexican tator tots and Mexican mixed vegetables and tres leches cake.

Details: Most dinners are a $5 suggested donation and reservations are preferred. To RSVP, visit Cafe 361’s website at



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