Vegetarian Action

Jim Dunn Works with Neglected Youth

By Whitney Blomquist

Jim Dunn, a longtime VRG volunteer and vegan/animal rights activist, decided he wanted a change of pace and began tutoring a few evenings a week at HANDY, Inc. (Helping Abused Neglected Disadvantaged Youth), a non-profit organization located in Fort Lauderdale, FL, whose mission is to "embrace, educate, and empower vulnerable youth to become engaged, productive adults." After observing the buckets of fried chicken being served to the young teens at HANDY, Jim approached the staff with an offer to implement a program that would introduce the kids to the idea of a plant-based diet. The offer was accepted and five 1 1/2-hour sessions were arranged — with Jim and his friend Michelle Ellis developing the program. "We covered all the aspects of why one becomes a vegan, including various health issues, but at this age they are convinced that they're immortal, so that doesn't get their attention. We did, however, find that we could approach the health topics by talking about the performance of world class vegan athletes," Dunn said.

To cover the animal cruelty issues, a talented speaker from the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida was brought in. Dunn noticed that the animal cruelty issues intrigued many of the teens. "I went to the HANDY people up front and said I wanted to show some slides and video of animal brutality — the reality of how animals are treated in the animal agriculture industry — that some people, especially teens, are likely to find disturbing. I thought that if they are old enough to make many of their own food choices, then they should know where that food comes from." The staff at HANDY completely agreed with Dunn and these animal issues struck a chord with the teens.

The sessions were varied, but there was no concern about redundancy — the assumption was that these kids may not be exposed to these ideas again anytime soon and the team wanted them to stick. The sessions included presentations, informative YouTube clips, group discussions, and in the last session a "veggie rap" contest. At the beginning of each session there was a review of the previous session. "This was a good way for us to find out what was sticking and what wasn't," Dunn said. "We were a bit surprised to find that they remembered many of the environmental issues that we talked about."

Ellis, and Jim's wife Maggie provided vegan food samples at each session that quickly became a highlight of the program for the kids. They loved the vegan chili, the fresh veggies with dips, the tofu fingers, and the fresh fruit parfaits. They cleaned their plates every time and always asked for seconds. Most of the teen participants were referred to HANDY by county organizations and have extremely challenging home lives. "Many of these kids are in financially stressed situations so we had to explain how to put together a healthy plant-based meal inexpensively while showing them that a vegan diet is much more than just salads and pasta with marinara sauce," Dunn proclaimed.

Clearly these kids are not now in a position to make big changes to their diets on their own; however, Jim thinks that the seeds of change have been planted and at least some of the kids have a new and enlightened perspective regarding a healthy, environmentally sound and cruelty-free diet.

Whitney Blomquist wrote this article while interning with The Vegetarian Resource Group.