Syracuse University Magazine

Commitment to Action


The Books and Cooks! team poses with Bill Clinton at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative University. Pictured (from left) are Tim Biba ’11, Greg Klotz ’10, Clinton, Allison Stuckless ’11, and Kate Callahan ’10.

Student volunteers offer local schoolchildren valuable lessons in literacy and good nutrition through an innovative program

Tim Biba ’11 wasn’t nervous about appearing on national television until Today Show host Ann Curry told him he would be seen by millions of viewers. Biba had been invited to talk about Books and Cooks!, a program he and fellow interns at the Mary Ann Shaw Center for Public and Community Service created that provides tutoring and nutritional information to elementary school children to improve their literacy rates and instill healthy eating habits. “I was thrilled to have the opportunity to represent the Shaw Center and all of the good work it does in the community,” Biba says.It was fun once I got over my initial butterflies.”

Books and Cooks! is the result of a collaboration among Shaw Center interns who in 2010 decided they wanted to attend the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU), which requires applicants to submit a Commitment to Action—a yearlong set of goals that can be measured and evaluated. On their own, literacy interns Biba, Allison Stuckless ’11, and Greg Klotz ’10 teamed up with nutrition intern Kate Callahan ’10 to create a fun and informative after-school program that would address some of the literacy challenges and health issues facing inner-city children in the Syracuse community. “The center’s staff first learned about the Books and Cooks! idea when the interns asked us to edit their draft proposal,” says Pamela Kirwin Heintz ’91, G’08, associate vice president and director of the Shaw Center. “Not only was their proposal accepted, it was selected as an ‘Outstanding Commitment’ to be featured at the conference.”

The team had one year to turn its innovative idea into a hands-on after-school program consisting of lessons in reading, craft activities, and healthy meal preparation based on a variety of cultures. They researched third-grade curriculum requirements, developed lesson plans, learned how to make and keep a schedule, and recruited and trained tutors. They also learned how to budget financial support from the Wal-Mart Foundation and Shaw Center to cover transportation costs and purchase books, maps, craft materials, and cooking supplies for each lesson. “This was the first time I had to see something through from conceptualization to implementation,” Biba says. “It was daunting because we knew a lot of people would be watching—we had to deliver.” 

When the original Books and Cooks! team graduated, another group of students was eager to step in and run the program. Literacy intern Victoria Seager ’14 researches and develops lesson plans designed to teach the children about the geography, climate, currency, and customs of a different country each week. She then creates a craft project related to the country’s culture. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s awesome,” says Seager, who purchases the supplies and spends several hours a week writing lesson plans. “When we studied Ireland, we made Blarney stones, for Puerto Rico we made maracas, and for Brazil, we made Carnival face masks.” 

Nutrition majors Marissa Donovan ’13 and Victoria Li ’12 plan the weekly cooking lessons, which expose students to the cuisines of various cultures and guide them toward healthy food choices. “When we studied Japan, we brought in some sushi for the kids to try, and then had them make their own with bread, humus, and vegetables,” Donovan says. “If you have kids do the cooking, they’re much more likely to enjoy the foods.”

 For Li, the most rewarding part of the program is seeing the children’s enthusiasm for learning. “It’s a great feeling when the kids repeat facts they’ve learned from previous lessons and place them into current lessons,” Li says. “When we made smoothies they remembered why milk is essential to our bodies and that shows me they’re gaining basic nutrition knowledge that will lead to healthier lives.”

This year, the team added exercise to the program because it seemed like a perfect match with literacy and nutrition. “Many children today aren’t getting outside and moving, so we really wanted to expand their knowledge and promote physical fitness,” Donovan says. “Now we have literacy on Mondays, nutrition on Wednesdays, and exercise on Fridays.”

When Seager and Donovan attended the 2012 CGIU this spring, they were excited to discover other schools and colleges were interested in replicating the Books and Cooks! program. “Our original goal was to create a model that could be replicated at other after-school sites in Syracuse,” Heintz says. “Now our goal is to have Books and Cooks! expand beyond Syracuse to become a model for other schools and colleges nationwide.” —Christine Yackel


Nutrition majors Victoria Li ’12 (center) and Shelby Keyes ’12 give children in the Books and Cooks! program a lesson in French cooking by having them make crepes filled with their choice of fresh fruit and healthy toppings.

Photos courtesy of the Mary Ann Shaw Center for Public and Community Service