Quinoa with small fry

1002406_498190780253355_749950882_nOn any given Saturday, Alissa McLaughlin (’01) and a loyal cadre of friends lug some 60 pounds of food up two flights of stairs into a kitchen at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in inner city Philadelphia.

Then for several hours, Alissa and company conduct cooking classes, teach nutrition and prepare food with dozens of city kids from ages 3 to 15, many from families on fixed incomes. It’s a passion for Alissa, who grew up in a family that valued the time they spent together around the dinner table. She’s taken that love and is sharing it to change her community.

A company all her own

After putting herself through James Madison University working retail at Harrisonburg’s Valley Mall, plus volunteering with Young Life, a campus organization, plus completing majors in communication and in computer information systems, Alissa headed to New York City where she worked as an event planner with a number of corporate clients.

Alissa McLaughlin ('01)

Alissa McLaughlin (’01)

But Alissa is a Philly girl at heart and missed the city she loves. She returned to her city and worked with Sparks Exhibits, a Philadelphia-based company, doing lighting for events and commuting three hours a day back to NYC. In addition to clients, including Merck, Alissa worked with the International Trade Association, with European markets and with emerging markets in Indonesia and Asia — jobs that took her overseas two weeks out of every month.

In 2010, after years of hard work — which also included cleaning houses — and lots of serious saving, Alissa struck out on her own. She started her own event planning company that she named Radiant Matter. From the beginning, she had three goals: to start and run her own company without incurring debt; to support the local economy; and to provide jobs.

998000_505294019543031_447354511_nAlissa succeeded in all three — although she admits it hasn’t been easy. “Event planning years are like dog years,” she says, good-naturedly. Today Radiant Matter employees 50 people, including 15 full-time staff, and has established national clients, such as EY (formerly Ernst and Young) and Oracle.

One more important goal

But Alissa had one more important goal. She wanted to give back to the community she loves. She noticed a huge population of kids in inner city Philadelphia who are hungry and angry — “hangry kids” they’re called, she says.

“A lot of the kids in this bracket will grow up to work in the food industry, many of whom will pursue careers in the hospitality field,” Alissa explains. The area is filled with hotels, restaurants and a large convention center, all supporting a vigorous hospitality and tourism industry. Why not give them a head start?

In her blog, Alissa explains her passion for Philadelphia and its families:

I love the way the heat radiates off the black top, that parallel parking is a rite of passage and you will always see a living breathing person within one city block even in the middle of the night on a Tuesday. What I don’t love is the incredible divide between the “haves” and “have nots,” that there are $1.5 million dollar houses in the same blocks where there are eviction notices posted. There also is a stigma within the city limits, the people who are of greater means can afford to eat healthy and prepare balanced meals. What is even worse is, as I have done my research, it is partly true; affluence is a factor in healthy eating. I mean just the simple fact is produce is sometimes too expensive for people on fixed incomes. RIDICULOUS.

Alissa wanted to change that.

1173765_520519788020454_2057135200_nShe approached the director of the MAC about starting a program to help kids. The director, Mick Kaye, was interested, and in March 2012 Small Fry was born. “Mick, who has been there from the beginning, handles all of our community relationship development and marketing work,” she says. “Right now, he is working really hard to help us get set up to grow into the next three sites and raise the money to do it.” Small Fry is planning to spread into South West Philadelphia,  North Philadelphia (Kensington Area) and West Philadelphia.

Every week Alissa teaches kids to cook and eat healthy. “Some kids didn’t know what brown rice was [when they first came to Small Fry]. Now they’re talking about quinoa,” she says.

She also teaches kids how to shop wisely, cook creatively on a budget, and she strives to send the children home with a meal or two for their families each week.

Small Fry also keeps them off the streets and creates a sense of community in a population that needs a “continuity of care,” she says. “Many are from single-parent homes or foster care.”

Alissa, Small Fry and the MAC have developed a friendship and mutual trust. The center works with her to fit Small Fry into their 365 days of programming that includes African dance, crafts and an urban youth basketball league that is more than 50 years old. “I feed them. They dance them and play sports with them,” she says. Along with cooking, the children’s math skills and reading skills are bolstered by calculating and reading recipes.

There are challenges, she admits. “Last week we had a roach infestation,” she says. But it’s working.

A faithful commitment

Alissa’s passion is rooted in her Christian faith. “I believe when the Lord calls you to give, you give sacrificially.” Alissa and Radiant Matter fund 100 percent of Small Fry, however, some other companies have stepped up to donate food. Every month 10 percent of Radiant Matter’s profits go to support the program. When the money is not in the company budget, it comes out of Alissa’s pocket. “Even when we had zero money, we always funded Small Fry. However,” she adds, “EY donated our organization system, and many of our [Radiant Matter] clients volunteer and pay for food and supplies.”

For Alissa, Small Fry is about much more than food. It’s about helping kids learning to interact positively. It’s about helping families establish healthy lifestyles. It’s about shoring up a community. It’s about pre-training kids, many of whom will be the future of the local food service and hospitality industry. It’s about consistency and stability.

For Alissa, it’s about giving back. It’s about being the change in a community she loves.

To learn more about Small Fry, visit them on Facebook or follow Alissa’s blog.

And if you’d like to check out Radiant Matter, here’s their link: http://www.rm-events.com



About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

3 Responses to Quinoa with small fry

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  2. Jan Gillis says:

    What a great role model! I’m humbled when I read about Alissa’s work ethic and passion to help others.


  3. Nancy Alexander says:

    What a wonderful tribute to an amazing young woman. I know Alissa and have been to Philly to the Center she is doing such amazing things there! Her heart is to serve those kids Amazing!


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