Beyond the bustling city center, the residential neighborhood of Guaymallén is a very quiet place at noon. That is, with the exception of one humble building: the Comedor Santa Faustina. As schools let out and lunchtime begins, the airy space echoes with laughter and the din of clattering plates and clinking utensils.
Providing free lunches to kindergarten, primary, and secondary school students, the Comedor Estudiantil Santa Faustina is for many children a rare source of security, hope and love. About 90 students come through the food kitchen regularly, and each of them is greeted with hugs and besos by founder and operator Lela Scherl. Lela’s selfless and humble commitment to the Comedor has made her a figure beloved not only by the children and volunteers at the Comedor but also by the entire community.
Receiving zero government assistance, Lela keeps the food kitchen operating by soliciting food donations from area food banks and monetary donations from community groups. Other expenses she pays out of pocket with the support of her nephew and three other associates.
The story begins in 2002, with the Argentine economy in shambles and unemployment over 20 percent. At the time, Lela was a member of Caritas Internationalis, a Catholic humanitarian and development organization. She saw that many schoolchildren lacked sufficient meals to bring to school, and resolved to create a student food kitchen. Santa Faustina opened that same year.
For Lela, it was important to open a food kitchen that was specifically for students.
“What is most important about the student aspect is that the child does not feel like he or she is at a communal food kitchen. Here, the child is attended to as if they were in a restaurant. They don’t feel like they go to a food kitchen for the poor so they don’t feel discriminated against. Santa Faustina has universality.”
“Did you go to school today?” The volunteers ask the children before dishing out fresh, hot meals.
“We are only concerned that the child is fed and that he or she goes to school,” said Lela. “Whether or not the parents are employed is not our concern.”
Sadly, many of the children at Santa Faustina come from broken or unstable homes. Providing a daily place of security and comfort, the humble building in Guaymallén is not only a source of nutritional sustenance but also of nourishment for the soul. A smile from volunteers Roxana, Doñela, or Fernanda may be the only smile a child sees all day. The brief midday hours may be a child’s only opportunity play with other children all day. In this regard, Santa Faustina is more then a food kitchen.
Lela’s maxim: A smile and then a plate of food. “You realize that their eyes brighten more from a smile than from a plate of food. They are happy.”
By Joseph Gibson
The Comedor Estudiantil Santa Faustina is located at Lamadrid 2287 in Guaymallén.