Work at Damiano Kids Café yields personal fulfillment for Duluth man

Towering above the businesses and homes of Duluth’s Central Hillside is a three-story, red brick gothic building that sits on the corner of West Fourth Street and North Second Avenue West. It’s beyond the walls of this abandoned Catholic elementary school that Oscar Lopez carries out his passion for helping children.

As the clock inside the Damiano Center nears 3:30 p.m., Oscar Lopez can be found inside his office, grabbing a slightly worn-out wooden clipboard and black Bic pen off the desk. He heads across a long, dark hallway on the center’s second floor and enters a room that once overflowed with desks and books, the smell of chalk now faded away.

Now, the aroma of chicken spaghetti casserole fills the room, and the desks have been replaced with round lunch tables. Entering what is now the Damiano Kids Café, Lopez picks up a red dry erase marker from the chalk tray on the wall and jots the day’s menu onto the whiteboard.

“We started when there were a lot of kids coming to the soup kitchen downstairs,” said Lopez, coordinator of the Damanio Kids Café program that began in 2001. “Our main focus is to provide a welcoming, safe atmosphere for kids after school as well as a healthy meal.”

Lopez sets the marker down, fires up the desktop computer, and straightens the chairs.

He’s preparing for the kids to start filing in at around 3:45 p.m. From then until 5:30 p.m., the room will be abuzz with kids doing various activities and eating nutritious meals, a scene that happens every Monday through Thursday during the school year.

“Alright, you guys want to have a quick meeting to see who’s going to do what for today?” Lopez said.

Four women make their way to the lunch table nearest the entrance of the room and take a seat in one of the blue plastic chairs nearby. Lopez assigns duties to each of the volunteers, with someone in charge of collage art, the sign-in table, outdoor games and planting in the gardens behind the center.

Once the volunteers are in their places, Lopez makes his rounds throughout the room, making sure everything is ready for the busy afternoon that lies ahead of him.

As volunteer Michele Naar-Obed makes her way into the room with yellow and blue metal watering cans in hand, Lopez asks her what she is planning for the afternoon. Naar-Obed is preparing the gardens behind the Damiano Center for the kids to plant lettuce.

“It grows well in the cool weather, and everyone’s getting itchy to see something grow,” Naar-Obed said.

Lopez then heads over to the craft table that lies on the back wall of the room, below a window overlooking West Fourth Street. Volunteer April Palmore of West Duluth is getting everything ready to make collage art with the kids.

“I’m just giving them some company, someone to talk to,” Palmore said. “It’s like a family here. The kids that walk out of those doors leave with a new perspective on life.”

Lopez grabs a green tub filled with old magazine clippings, a stack of colored construction paper, and some Elmer’s glue, placing the materials on the table where Palmore is volunteering. Then it’s off to see if Lucy Meade, Kids Café program assistant, needs help preparing the meal and getting ready to serve the children.

On an average weekday, the Kids Café serves between 15 and 20 youth age 17 and under with nutritious meals, Lopez said. In 2011, the program served 5,425 meals to 510 individuals, according to the program’s website.

“A lot of our children are living in poverty,” Lopez said. “Some of the families where our kids come from don’t have the ability to create stability for their kids. There’s a lot of barriers and steps that a lot of our clients are unable to meet.”

While Meade whips up some ranch dressing to be served with the day’s meal, Lopez sorts silverware. He then hands out nametags to the volunteers, and soon enough, kids start making their way into the room.

Lopez takes a few of the kids outside, where a new playground was recently installed near the gardens. He starts up a game of tag with the kids, the wood chips surrounding the play set flying in the air as Lopez and several children run around the yellow plastic slide.

Making their way back inside, the crafts continue, and the meal is doled out at around 4:30 p.m. As Lopez makes his way around the room, chatting with the kids and volunteers, one can hear the voices of children yelling, “Oscar, come over here.”

Over at the craft table, eight-year-old Cecily Buckner puts together a card for one of her friends. She said she frequently comes to the Kids Café after school gets out at Nettleton Elementary.

“There’s lots of friendly people here,” Buckner said. “It’s really fun.”

Lopez continues making the rounds and assisting with the meal until 5:20 p.m. rolls around and it’s time for cleanup. As the room thins out and the pots and pans get put back on the shelf, the wooden clipboard that Lopez carried around all afternoon makes its way back onto his desk until tomorrow when he does it all over again.

“The biggest kick I get out of this job is pulling people, resources, and organizations together to make things happen for these kids,” he said. “That’s why I do this job. So I can make sure these kids get what they deserve.”

For more information on the Damiano Center and the Kids Café program, call (218) 722-8708 or visit

Read more about the Kids Café art program.

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