NEW PORT RICHEY — Steam from a freshly made chicken casserole rose toward the ceiling inside the kitchen of the RAP House. Nearby in a glass dish sat a green bean casserole, dinner rolls and a salad with baby tomatoes and black olives.
On Thursday night, nine kids from the Runaway Alternatives Project sank their teeth into home-cooked fare prepared by the Rotary Club of Trinity.
It was a far cry from the state-sanctioned meals of fish sticks and fries that the kids at Pasco's shelter for youth runaways and truant students would usually receive.
"It was really good," said Emilee, a 15-year-old girl who came to the RAP House seven months ago after witnessing domestic violence at home. "I really liked the chicken casserole."
The RAP House is a shelter designed for youth ages 10 to 17, providing up to 18 beds for an average stay of two weeks to a month at a time — or until the kids get back on their feet.
The partnership between RAP House and the Trinity Rotarians started last year, said Candace Glewen, president of the Rotary Club of Trinity.
During a lunch and learn — where the Rotary Club goes off-site to a local organization, has lunch and learns about the group — a Rotary Club member thought of the idea of making dinners for the kids at the house.
The name of the program: Cook '4' Kids.
The purpose was to foster a sense of comfort for the kids, some whom were perpetual runaways or between foster care placements.
Starting in February, five of the group's 62 Rotarians signed up to prepare an item at the RAP House on the third Thursday of each month. The Rotarians are given full access to the RAP House's kitchen to make the meal.
If a Rotarian couldn't cook or didn't have time to contribute, they could buy items or give money to another Rotarian to make a dish.
"It would be nice to do this every night of the month," Glewen said on Thursday. "That's our goal."
The idea is already catching on with other civic groups.
The Holiday Rotary Club also wants to cook for the RAP House to change the usual dinner fare funded by the state Department of Education — think traditional school lunches — to something tastier.
"Those meals have all the nutrition in the world," said James Simms, development director of Youth and Family Alternatives Inc., which runs the RAP House, "but not the pizzazz."
Glewen said she wants the meals to send a message to the youngsters at the RAP House.
"It's a wonderful way to give back to the kids who aren't sure if anybody cares," she said. "Somebody does care."
Back in the RAP House dining room, the kids sat on white fold-out chairs at tables decorated with beige tablecloths with green leaves.
Kitchen staff filled the kids' white paper plates with piping hot food, which they washed down with grape juice or milk.
From what the RAP House staff could tell, the dinner went over well.
"Looks like they're going back for seconds," said Marlene Trentacoste, residential supervisor. "That's a good sign."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.