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The YMCA of Grays Harbor has partnered with the Aberdeen School District this summer to provide a strong program combining fun and food. This year our Park and Play program serves lunches to kids at three parks in town, serving anywhere between 50 to 150 lunches and snacks at each park each day.

It is obvious after only a few weeks of programming that there is a great need for food amongst these kids. Without these lunches, many of these children would go without food or without proper nutrition. However, I think there is a greater hunger than for food in our community: we hunger for community, for friendship and for opportunity.

After grabbing a lunch packed with a sandwich, fruit or veggie, some chips and milk, the kids grab a seat around the park, usually at a picnic table. With only a few picnic tables in the park, kids often end up eating with new friends. Conversation usually starts about what is in the lunch that day: what they like or don’t like or have never tried before. There may even be a proposed trade for an extra bag of chips.

But the food is only the starting point for finding commonalities amongst new friends as the conversations about food quickly evolve into what game or activity we will do after eating, or even details about life at home or school. Conversation continues as we bring out rubber bands to make bracelets, play dough, or paint.

We cheer one another on through hula-hoop contests, hand games and running races. And through it all we are learning one another’s names, languages, and stories. This is the greatest thing we have to offer at the parks.

After only a few weeks of Park and Play programming, I am convinced that it is these moments shared around the table and beyond that keeps the kids coming back to the park day after day and staying for the duration of the program. Yes—we are hungry for food. But the food speaks to a hunger that is deeper; a hunger to be present with one another, to play, to laugh, to share, and to build relationships.