The Portrait Project
Image courtesy of Barbara Melnik Carson and Irene Mokra.

During the last year, countless individuals went out of their way to give back to the community. Many used their skills or pivoted their business to provide essential services for those in need. Others came up with more creative ways to give back. That’s where the Portrait Project comes in.

Meet the Artists

Two local artists, Barbara Melnik Carson and Irene Mokra, found their own way to give back through artwork. Inspired by several local female business owners, they came up with a project of their own. They set out to form a visual narrative that would spotlight a few women who thought beyond themselves in these unprecedented times.  

“I think [this project] is an opportunity to celebrate the exceptional people in our community. We can’t just rely on those with the most money and power to step up.” Barbara explains. “These women small business owners are role models for us all. We all can add value to our community if we just take a moment to determine what skills can contribute to a greater good. Many small acts can lead to notable improvements in the quality of life for all.”

“And we were thinking, how can we use our platform as artists to honor them through our work,” Irene adds. They are also considering doing a fundraiser event where they showcase the artwork. Donations would go towards the work these business owners are doing or to the charities/foundations of their choosing. 

With this plan in mind, Irene and Barbara decided to approach four women: Lisa McDonald of The TeaHaus; Lilian Anderson of Sprouting Chefs LLC; Suzanne Price of Sunshine Special Children’s Studio; and Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers of Pilar’s Tamales.  

They had already begun working on the portraits and sculptures when Irene reached out to me. In addition to the artwork itself, the two artists wanted some deeper insights. They didn’t just want to honor these amazing women. They wanted to know why they did what they did for the community and what motivated their commitment and devotion.  

“We wanted to know what are the qualities of a small business owner who is also a community leader. What incentivizes these women to act in favor of people in need,” says Irene. “I want to learn more about women who are strong, persistent, hardworking, and what is their drive to do good in these complicated times.” 

Lisa McDonald of TeaHaus

At the beginning of February, I joined Barbara and Irene. Over the course of the next two months, I was able to sit down, both in person and over zoom, with the four women whose actions had inspired this project.  

Lisa McDonald opened TeaHaus back in 2007 and in 2017 she added Eat More Tea. The intimate and charming tea room, located on North 4th Ave just outside Kerry Town, provides customers much more than the highest quality tea, delicious tea-based treats, and a wide selection of “teacessories”.   

Before the COVID-19 statewide shutdown was officially announced on March 23, Lisa made the decision to transition from serving tea to making lunches for students.  

“Back in March when there were just rumors of schools shutting down my mind went directly to ‘ok we are going to be pivoting.’ Even before it was announced I sent out a text to my staff and said just so you know if they make the announcement starting tomorrow we will be making free meals.” 

The choice to provide school lunches was largely due to logistical issues in AAPS’ meal plan. The school system simply wasn’t able to accommodate everyone at such short notice. 

“At the time I thought it would just be for a few weeks like 50 to 60 lunches that people could pick up or we could deliver to wherever they needed it. Ann Arbor is great but it was all short notice and logistically how were kids supposed to get meals?”  

Lisa Teahaus
Image courtesy of Barbara Melnik Carson and Irene Mokra.

Helping Feed the Community

Right away, McDonald was looking at the situation from a business perspective. But it wasn’t just a question of filling in the gaps left by the school system.  

“In my youth, I was someone who did have to rely on free school meals at points in my life. There were many times where I knew my parents weren’t sure where the next meal would come from. And so that was just an immediate and obvious decision for me.” 

McDonald anticipated her role to be relatively small, estimating an average of 50 meals a day for a few weeks. She quickly increased production to about 400 meals a week. As the need for school lunches began to decrease, Lisa transitioned to providing meals elsewhere. She began by partnering with a good friend of hers who also happened to be the head of Food Gatherers at the Delonis Center.  

“I could just see the logistical nightmare, every day was changing. I could see he needed help. So I was like, ‘Just tell me what you need.’”  

The transition was easy. She continued making sack lunches and ready-to-eat meals that could easily be reheated and served at the shelters. And while she began a steady working relationship with Food Gatherers she continues to provide meals to other organizations, filling in wherever she is needed.  

“We’re still making about 300 to 500 meals a day. And we have not missed a single week since [March of 2020]. It’s a lot but it works.”  

Staying Positive, No Matter What

Having such a small business has allowed her to be flexible. And her staff has made it even easier to change gears at a moment’s notice. Although it’s less of a staff and more like a family to Lisa. They didn’t just stick by her throughout this process, making meals and contributing their time. They also donate all their tips to help maintain the free meal program. Lisa explained why: 

“Everyone who works for me has mortgages, children, bills. They don’t need the money less but in a different way. They are perhaps more at a point in life that having something to do and having purpose is equally as important as paying rent or mortgage.” 

She pauses for a moment.  

“There is also a loyalty there because I think they see what I’m doing for the community and they want to support that. They are people who would be doing things for the community on their own but I already have the infrastructure to do that. It’s not like they’re doing it for me.” 

In December of 2020, Lisa posted a shoutout video on YouTube. She began with that unique humor that has always lent character to the establishment. She goes on to describe all she’s thankful for and the positive moments that made the hardships of the past year a little more bearable. How has she been able to find joy and gratitude in these dark times? 

“I just tell people I can’t afford botox so I might as well just keep smiling,” She jokes before continuing in a more somber tone. “I was raised with a lot of gratitude.”  

“I’m not special. Probably why it’s so easy for me is because I don’t think I’m doing anything that special. It’s not out of the ordinary. For me someone’s hungry I’m gonna give them a sandwich. I truly don’t feel like I’m doing anything out of the ordinary. Because in my world this is just what you do. And I think that’s probably why I think I just keep doing it.” 

Lisa has continued to make meals and has no plans of stopping anytime soon.  

Lilian Anderson of Sprouting Chefs, LLC

In 2015 Lilian Anderson began planning her children’s summer activities. At the time her daughter enjoyed baking so Lilian did a simple Google search for a baking-related summer camp.  

“I think I looked online for no more than 10 or 15 minutes, and there was nothing there. I just thought I could do that. That’s my background, nutrition.” 

That same summer she ran a small cooking class out of her own kitchen. The response was overwhelmingly positive so she decided to take the next step and launch her own business. 

In March of 2016, she opened Sprouting Chefs LLC. She began holding hands-on cooking classes at Westminster Presbyterian Church, located on Scio Church Rd. Her program focused on teaching kids cooking techniques, food and kitchen safety, nutrition, ethnic cuisines, and, for 4 years, Lilian got to pass on the joy of cooking to a new generation of chefs. 

That all changed in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic. When Governor Whitmer issued the stay-at-home order on March 23, Lilian chose to close the business. But it wasn’t long before she was back at the church cooking for a different cause.  

“That very first weekend a culinary colleague of mine [Allison Anastasio] called and asked if I’d be interested in doing meal preparation with the group Community Action Network (CAN), which is a non-profit that focuses on activities for kids. She knew I had that background and the kitchen space. So she asked if I thought the church would let us use it.” 

Working with CAN

Lilian was already doing work with CAN, an organization that helps underprivileged youth and families in Washtenaw County, through programs focused on education, stabilization (aimed at helping families meet basic needs), and community (providing safe spaces for people to interact, socialize, and continue to strengthen community ties). With growing enthusiasm, Lilian described her growing involvement with the organization. 

“I had established a scholarship fund. I had kids there who would come in and participate in classes without paying the fee. And I already had that contact so getting to know them even better has solidified it more.” 

Needless to say, the church was more than willing to let the two chefs use the space for their meal program. While Lilian and her colleague were the driving force behind the meal program, Lilian made it clear that it was a group effort.  

“It was really neat we had drivers volunteer, mostly from the church, to deliver the food. We had a rotating team coming into the kitchen. My kids were involved a little bit. When it all first started, that was a neat experience to feel like we could do something, to still use our skills and do something that was helpful for some folks in the community.” 

the portrait project lilian
Image courtesy of Barbara Melnik Carson and Irene Mokra.

Finding Balance

After about three weeks her colleague had to step away. This left Lilian on her own but only for a brief window.  

“I said I need a second person, I can’t run it on my own. There was a parent of a student of mine who had started participating and she had a restaurant background. There were two people who became kind of assistants, so we were able to keep it going for about 6 weeks.” 

After 9 weeks of making up to 200 lunches every day, Lilian decided to call it quits.  

“After that, it was partially a little bit of burnout and the need at least for that time seemed to decrease,” Lilian explained. “The families were getting emergency funding from the state. The number we were cooking for was beginning to drop too. It was the beginning of the summer and people’s situations were changing. Things were opening up a bit more so people were going back to work. So instead of looking to do it the whole summer, we thought it was a good time to call it quits.” 

Not that “calling it quits” meant taking a break. With the state beginning to open up Lilian decided to reopen Sprouting Chefs, taking the necessary safety precautions, including reducing enrollment. She’s glad to be back but it’s not the same.  

“I miss that spontaneous conversation. I used to have 10 kids around a counter, many would come by themselves. And for the first half-hour they were super quiet. Everyone was really shy. But as soon as I set them up as groups of 3 or 4, they would be forced to talk because they are cooking together. At the end, we would be sitting down for a meal and it was as if these kids had known each other forever. It was neat to see a combination of cooking and social aspects.”  

Passion for Teaching

When she talks about her students, her passion for working with children is unmistakable. Not only has she gone back to work she also continues teaching classes at CAN’s community sites. She might not be making meals but it doesn’t seem like she’s slowed down at all. So what’s the secret? 

“I tell my husband often: balance, balance, balance. Something always gives. I never would have done it all, the volunteer work plus trying to maintain my business. I think I know what my limit is.” 

It comes down to balance, gratitude, and that combined passion for working with kids and food.  

“I consider myself grateful, I’m grateful that I have a business that has some wiggle room, and that I could do different things and meet people where they were at.”  

Suzanne Price of Sunshine Special Children’s Studio

Suzanne Price opened Sunshine Special Children’s Studio Preschool and Childcare in 1986. The school is located west of Ann Arbor on Scio Church Rd, just past Zeeb Rd. It is not only the school’s remote location and original appearance, it is run out of a small log cabin that could pass for the dwelling of Snow White’s seven dwarves, which are unique. The school’s approach to early education is inspired by the education programs of a district in Italy called Reggio Emilia. The curriculum supports children’s interests and growing understanding through the use of creative group projects. 

“What is different with Reggio is that the teachers are observing the children individually but also in a small group. The social interaction and the benefit of what children are doing together with the inclusion of a teacher,” Suzanne explains.  

Over the years Suzanne and her staff have nurtured a creative and inspiring environment. When Michigan began to shut down due to Covid Suzanne wasn’t sure if she’d be able to continue.  

“I did think about closing.” But as funding became available through both federal and state COVID-19 assistance programs such as PPP loans, she decided to apply and use those grants to stay open. “Because the money came together we were able to get open outside and invest in having an outdoor program for the summer.”

suzanne the portrait project
Image courtesy of Barbara Melnik Carson and Irene Mokra.

Helping Parents and Children

Suzanne quickly realized that her choice to stay open, even at reduced capacity, was benefitting both parents and kids.  

“As those months went by it became more and more clear that there was a real need for some working parents to have childcare arrangements, even parents who were working from home needed their children to be somewhere sometimes. And it was also apparent that there were some children that were really sad because they never got to see other kids and there were employees here that were really hoping that there was a way they could continue working. ”  

There seemed to be no doubts about continuing into the fall. Using some of the grant money Suzanne was able to invest in a new air filtration system, which made a huge difference.  

“As the cold weather came we were able to spend time inside and only be outside a minimal amount of time as weather permitted.” Still, she chose to maintain 50% capacity for the safety of the staff and students. Despite having to limit the number of students it was clear that staying open made an impact.  

In terms of navigating the countless changes and obstacles presented by the pandemic, there was a surprising number of positives that came from having a new routine: 

“There were a lot of discoveries about being outside that really were surprising. To be in an environment that I have been used to being in for so many years and noticing things, like how many squirrels are in the yard or when seeding happens just from the natural things that grow up in our yard, or what the sky looks like at different times and how often we were observing the sky and what was in the sky. We actually did a project on the sky because there was so much that we were seeing that everybody hadn’t really noticed as much before. That was really interesting.”  

Developing Connections During the Pandemic

Suzanne also brought up the positives regarding relationships at the school. Being in smaller groups the kids seemed to be forming much closer friendships: 

“Particularly for the 4-year-old kids, because of their developmental age, have been really tight. I think they see each other more as individuals because they’re a group of 6 rather than 12 or 14.” 

It’s not just the kids who are developing these deeper connections; the staff has also gotten much closer. She attributes much of the success of staying open during COVID and her ability to manage the business to her staff.  

“Staff cohesiveness has been a big reason why it has worked out. Everyone has really stepped up. Sometimes individual children have more need in terms of emotional reassurance. Overall everybody is really happy, the children are really happy to come and have an opportunity to play.”  

Despite making a big difference just by staying open Suzanne didn’t really think twice about it, it was just the right thing to do: 

“Well, when Irene told me about this I was surprised because, you know, she told me they were looking for people who stayed open and who have really contributed to the community. And having heard and read so much about people who are making meals or who are providing food, clothing, shelter, those kinds of things. I said ‘well, I don’t know.’ But then she said, ‘but you have stayed open for the community, for the people who come here, for those people.’ So I felt very honored that I was asked to do it and glad that if that’s considered a contribution, that I was able to do that.” 

“I have always loved people and food.” 

Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers of Pilar’s Tamales

This is how Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers prefaces her long career in the catering and restaurant business. She began at the People’s Food Co-op before opening her catering business. At first, she was doing small private events. Then it started to get bigger.  

“I remember getting booked for my first wedding for 125 people. I was like ‘Oh my goodness, how am I going to do this.’ At that point, I felt I was on this wave of where I could go with it and I had to go inside myself and my intuition and realized it was a wave I needed to ride. And it was really very homegrown. No business plan, just a lot of hope and desire to see if this could work,” Sylvia explained. From there she expanded, doing the tamale cart at the Farmers Market and other events. Then she opened her restaurant Pilar’s Tamales on 2261 W. Liberty St. in 2001. 

Sylvia’s approach is to take things as they come and make the best of any situation. “First you say yes then you figure out how the pieces are going to come together. We don’t have a script for life, it’s like trial and error. Live and learn.”  

And that’s what she did when COVID began. Before the shutdown, Sylvia had been planning on doing a fundraiser through the Pilar’s Foundation, created by Sylvia for the purpose of providing financial and logistical support to organizations who are providing vital services to those in need. It quickly became clear that doing a large in-person fundraiser was no longer an option. Instead, she was contacted by Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights (WICIR). She partnered with them to do the Spring to Action, Cinco de Mayo fundraiser.  

The fundraiser was aimed at benefitting local undocumented families in Washtenaw County affected by COVID-19. The money was raised through meal packages that customers pre-order by May 4. All the proceeds, as well as an additional $5 donation per package donated by Pilar’s, went to WICIR. In total, they raised over $2,500.  

Image courtesy of Barbara Melnik Carson and Irene Mokra.

Spring to Action for Honduras

Her upcoming fundraiser, Spring to Action for Honduras, is going to be structured in the same way.  

“We will be offering meal packages for people in our community to order and our profits of those meals and Pilar’s will give back $5 for each plate sold. And we are going to give this money to the Share Foundation in Honduras,” Sylvia outlined the plan. She went on to explain why Honduras: 

“There are people at the border that have been there for 2 years and it’s just not feasible, not healthy, it’s not right. So, what the Share Foundation has proposed is that small plots of land are going to be planted with families who are given seeds for them to cultivate and grow their own food. With the idea that the food will be a way for them to stay tight, stay home, and not have to feel like they have to make this journey and be able to have food to feed their families.”  

She plans to take it one step further.  

“We are planting our gardens here in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Honduras and teach our children that this little garden is not only just for us to consume the beautiful veggies, but is in solidarity with other people as they are growing their gardens. It’s very symbolic to have a heart connection and think about their veggies, our veggies.” 

The fundraiser will go on for 3 consecutive weeks to give everyone who wants the opportunity to purchase a meal package. The dates for meal pick up are May 3 and 17, and on May 11 there will be gift cards for purchase, the proceeds again going to the foundation. For Sylvia, this fundraiser isn’t just a way to help others.

“I feel like that’s just how we get connected with each other. For me, it’s all about the intentions in our hearts. And how we can do something here to impact and if people know that we will be able to share that with the people in Honduras. The message that I will be sharing with him [the representatives with the Share Foundation] is that I want him to tell our people in Honduras that the people here, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, wherever are going to be there with them in solidarity. As they are planting their seeds in their land, we are going to be doing the same thing here and thinking of them, sending our love and prayers, how each of us wants to do that. And so that is going to make them feel like, ‘wow, there are people in other parts who care about us.’ That goes a long way.” 

Creating Impact with Personal Experience

Sylvia’s commitment to giving back to the community comes from her own experiences when she and her family escaped a horrific civil war in El Salvador and came to the US.  

“That’s what was done for my family, you know.” She told me about that journey and how, at the time, neither she nor her family knew where they would end up or how they were going to get by. It’s those experiences that seem to be the driving force behind all the work Sylvia has done to give back to and help the community during these uncertain times.  

“When you are forced to leave your homeland and leave everything behind not knowing where you’ll end up. It all happened by the grace of God. People came into our lives who I call angels. I think that we have this image of angels, with their beautiful wings and a little bit of crowning to them. But I think that there are angels here on earth that are called humans. And there are many many human angels that are constantly walking around, doing really wonderful and beautiful things. And we touch people’s lives and don’t realize at that moment the impact we are going to make in their life. It’s pretty beautiful because I feel like I wouldn’t be the person that I am had it not been for so many people that gave comfort, security, and love when we were so scared.” 

Shining Your Light

These women all have shown that there are many ways to help and give back to the community. Everyone has their thing, that thing they do best, be it cooking, teaching, or anything else. And although each of these women is unique they share the same selflessness that allowed them to, without a second thought, step up and give back to the community in any way they could.  

As Sylvia told me, “It takes all of this love and force and simply just a little time out of our busy schedule to do something that impacts others in a supportive way. That’s pretty remarkable. I just have to take a couple of hours of my day to do something. It’s all our little lights shining in.” 

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