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Cooking up a storm

Some of the mums in the kitchen

The crisis has left many cash strapped but after a donation of a kitchen on school in the Famagusta district is home to a pioneering programme that has got unemployed moms out of the house where they can give back to the community. Zoe Christodoulides meets them

AS THE recession continues to dig deep into everyone’s pockets, tales of sorrow and despair abound. From unemployment woes, to salary cuts and bills left unpaid, Cypriots are experiencing challenges practically unheard of before the crisis struck. And although it has become common knowledge that plenty of parents cannot afford to buy their children food to take to school, few can actually comprehend what this actually means or feels like in reality. What happens, however, when the stories you hear circulating in the media suddenly become your own family’s personal tale? Having to make a few cuts in your expenditure is one thing, but not having the money to give your children a decent amount of food for the day is quite another.
A stone’s throw from the party town of Ayia Napa lies the sleepy village of Sotira. An ‘all day’ primary school in the centre has been one of the worst hit on the island when it comes to the amount of children whose families can no longer fund or provide for their school meals. But something has changed of late, as a new project has sprung to life that sees unemployed mothers whose children attend the school come together to whip up wholesome dishes on the school grounds.
An initiative of the Sophia Foundation for Children, the idea of the ‘I Cook and I Offer’ scheme is that of the community working together to better their own situation. Last year, the school depended on outside catering for lunch time meals that would cost parents €50 a month per child. Now, they only give €15, while families in dire straits are not required to pay anything at all.
The project was set up following the donation of a fully equipped kitchen worth €14,000 by the Sophia Foundation, and mothers now have the adequate resources to cook the meals on their own. With support from various local businesses, the foundation has managed to raise enough money to feed the 130 children lunch and an afternoon snack for a whole year.
“The situation was such that they were in desperate need of help,” says Marina Shacolas, Head of the Sophia Foundation. “But the point is not just making donations here and there, but changing the situation on a grass roots level so that you leave something behind even when the economic climate eventually improves.” She adds: “they have automatically become more autonomous. It’s all about innovation and making improvements to a system that can help itself from within. What’s more, kids are eating more healthily with a focus on home cooked food and a well balanced diet.”
Step into the Sotira 3rd Primary School kitchen and the image could be likened to one from a feel good film: a group of women who joined together in total despair suddenly feel empowered and grateful that their children are getting a proper lunch. On the average day, there are three cooks who dart around the premises, including 29-year-old Kyriaki, who has been placed in charge because of her previous professional kitchen experience.
“People don’t realise just how bad it is out here in the villages. Unemployment is tragic, people hardly have money for the bare essentials,” she says as she dashes to stir a steaming pot of bulgur rice. Kyriaki used to have a decently paid job as a sous-chef for one of the big hotels in the Ayia Napa area. But when the crisis hit, pay cheques became scarce, and soon enough, she was laid off. Her husband, a painter, has been out of work for the past ten months. “We’re not educated people but we certainly have skills. But how can we use them now? From hospitality to construction to agriculture every single industry is suffering. Managing to put food on the table at the end of the day is tougher than you could possibly imagine.”
With three children to take care of, Kyriaki couldn’t be more grateful for the new Sotira school project. “The difference between €15 and €50 a month to feed your kids is huge. And with a group of us mothers working in the kitchen, we feel alive again,” she beams. With about 20 mothers working in rotation, each is given €15 for cooking the day’s lunch. “Just having that little bit in our pocket gives us something to keep us going. It’s a psychological boost.”
And while the Sophia Foundation have a done a great deal to set up the groundwork for change, it’s the mothers’ tenacious spirit that keeps the wheels of change in motion. “Now that we have this kitchen, we can do so much,” says Kyriaki pointing towards a tray filled with festive cookies. “We came in here and made them on Saturday and we’re now selling them to give money to families in need.”

Enjoying home cooked meals at the school in Sotira
Enjoying home cooked meals at the school in Sotira

“To feel that you are giving is the best feeling in the world,” adds Katerina, another 37-year-old volunteer. “Doing this has made me come out of my shell and become a better person.” The single mother has been alone for two and half years. “Being solo with five kids to look after and no income can make you crazy. But I now have the incentive to leave the house and do something that feels worthy.”
The students themselves have supported the scheme from the get go, with many popping into the kitchen to give their mum a hug or ask what’s on the menu. “Being around children is so uplifting that I often forget about the struggle to pay my bills when I’m here. It’s therapeutic,” confirms Katerina.
What’s particularly interesting is that the ladies of the village have begun to exchange home grown produce between themselves. “We’ve gone back to how it was years ago. And why not? It’s good for us,” explains Kyriaki. “I give potatoes that my family grows and a friend of mine gives me tomatoes and cucumbers in return. We’re lucky that we have these glorious fields around us and if more people grew stuff at home we’d all better off.”
Drawing on the success of the Sotira school project, the Sophia Foundation is hoping that the scheme will expand in the New Year to other schools in desperate need around the country. The list of schools drawn up by the Ministry of Education is a long one.
“We are targeting schools where there is a serious lack of money,” explains Marina. “There are eight in total that are in desperate need of help.” Next on the list is Yiolou primary school in the Paphos district. With the Sophia Foundation having already begun preparations for the project, funding is necessary to kick start the daily lunches. “It costs about €20,000 a year to feed a school, including the initial set up of the kitchen. Any contributions are welcome,” Marina says. “We may be going through a crisis but we certainly don’t want kids to be hungry, we have to fight this and give anything we can to children in need.”
Donations can be made to The Sophia Foundation Bank of Cyprus Account Number 012001047971. For more information email [email protected], visit www.sophia-foundation.com or Tel: 22-756595

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