How can one dinner change a child’s life?

Kimberly Perkins and Janine Cinseruli, owners of Sea Grass Restaurant thought just that prior to hosting a learning dinner for a group of 11 to 15 year-old Asbury Park students at their Ocean Grove restaurant recently.

The two ladies, as well as locals Peggy Harkins-Terrel, Matt Bannon and Brittani Bianca, invited 17 “Be Great” program kids from the Boys and Girls Club to come set, prepare and serve a four-course meal for each other with the goal of expanding their life skills as well as the learning the etiquette associated with dining out.

Sea Grass’ Janine Cinseruli teaches an Asbury Park “Be Great” student to plate dessert, which included the restaurant’s famous chocolate and banana egg rolls with vanilla ice cream.

Perkins and Cinseruli both say the event taught them more than the kids learned, however that is debatable given the kid’s, err… hunger for more.

I spoke with the fabulous Sea Grass ladies as well Tamer Gouda from the United Way (funds the Be Great program) and David Lee, Ocean Grove resident, who both helped organize the evening.

TBP:  So, seventeen kids in your kitchen.

Perkins:  We broke them up into groups and they did everything from setting the table to washing the dishes.  They crushed the garlic for the salad dressing and deveined the shrimp for the coconut shrimp.

One girl said that she never had shrimp before.  Another said she never had salad before.  It was really nice to see them experience something new and have a good time doing it.  We were also glad they could see two women business owners working hard.

Kim Perkins of Sea Grass Restaurant in Ocean Grove teaches two Asbury Park students to make salad dressing.

Cinseruli:  I was nervous being responsible for teaching the kids.  When I go kicking and screaming into something, it’s usually one of the best things I have ever done and this absolutely was.

They were all so excited and happy to learn and do and eat.  It was so fun to see them leave the table to finish and serve their dish.

Years ago, I worked at a restaurant in Miami where a lot of players from a basketball team would come in.  A lot of these guys had never been in a restaurant.  They didn’t know how to order or where to put their napkin.

That stuck with me.  I really wanted the kids we met to leave with life skills and not be scared when they go have dinner with someone in the future.  They all put their bread on the plate and napkin on their lap.  By the end of the evening, they had it down.

Also, working in a restaurant is not digging gold in the mountains – it is a solid way of making a living every day.  I wanted them to experience this and have a solid skill.

Matt Balon, Sea Grass manager, works with two Asbury Park students to prepare a meal in a professional restaurant kitchen. The “Be Great” program for students at the Boys and Girls Club is funded by the United Way of Monmouth County.

Lee:  Janine and Kim were both inspiring as well as great teachers.  These kids all have a vision to make something in life and go to college.  They have a cooking class with a hotplate right now.  A few months ago, I told Janine about my dream to give these kids an experience and she and Kim were wonderful in making this happen.

How many people can we look back on who have changed our lives?  Janine and Kim have given these kids a vision and a taste of something different.

Peggy Harkins-Terrel works with the Asbury Park students to make meatballs.

Gouda:  A few of the kids said they wanted to be chefs.  These kids were given a gift in that evening and their lives will be different because of it – because of Kim and Janine.

Perkins:  It was really nice to see the kids in our community.  Each were great.  It was inspiring to have this happen and be part of it for my life.

Cinsureli:  Some of the kids have come back to say “hi” which means so much.  I told them to all come in for a job when they were ready and I have a feeling some of them will.

For more information about this and other United Way of Monmouth County community programs, click here.  If you are a business owner interested in offering smart and information-hungry kids an opportunity to learn, like the Sea Grass ladies did, email David Lee at DLee@uwmonmouth.org.