Last summer, a father in a North Carolina prison carefully picked out donated school supplies for his five-year-old daughter, packing them into a backpack for her. On top of the brimming bag of notebooks and pencils he placed a letter of encouragement and love for the little girl. One week later she went with her family to pick up the bag as part of a program through Proverbs226 organization called “Back to School.” During those seven days her father had died in prison. That letter would turn out to be her final memory from him. “This was the last piece of him that he could give to her,” says Cyril Prabhu, the founder of Proverbs226, a Charlotte-based nonprofit that works to restore the relationships between children and their parents in prison. “The things that we do have a deep impact on these kids.”
When he’s not working with more than 5,000 children and their parents, Prabhu is a Senior Vice President at Bank of America. And he’s quick to share that for him, giving back is especially important. “I was one of those kids that someone picked to send $35 a month to,” says Prabhu, who grew up without a father in India and moved to the United States in 1993. “This is my payback time.”
Payback is how Joe Haubenhofer, a founder of Relish Carolina, a roaming dinner club here in Charlotte, sees the dinner Relish Carolina is co-hosting this month. “These people have committed their lives to fighting all that is not right, and they work tirelessly trying to get the world back on a proper axis,” says Haubenhofer of the dinner’s 25 guests, all with stories like Prabhu’s and who Haubenhofer calls “unsung heroes.” “They deserve recognition—precisely because they didn’t ask for it.”
Relish Carolina frequently hosts extravagant dinners around the Charlotte region, from a lobster boil at a brewery to a farm-to-fork dinner at a long table in a field. Typically, the dinners come with a price tag reflective of guests seeking a special occasion dining experience. But for this honorary evening honorees are being thanked for their work with the chance to indulge in exceptional seasonal food and drinks from Chef Jim Noble and littleSpoon, the Myers Park restaurant that will be taken over for the night of the dinner. “The idea is to thank them, and also to connect people who are compassionate and doing cool things,” says Haubenhofer.
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The initial idea sparked between Haubenhofer and Noble. “Charlotte is one of the most benevolent cities I’ve ever seen,” says Noble, who owns Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen restaurants, as well as Uptown’s charitable restaurant, The King’s Kitchen. “People in this town give a lot of themselves. And there are people who do a lot that people don’t know about.” Celebrating those behind the scenes is what spurred the concept for the dinner. littleSpoon’s owner, Alesha Vanata, joined in as soon as she heard about it. “To really honor people who are giving beyond their means, as opposed to living beyond their means, is incredible,” says Vanata. “That’s few and far between these days.”
Rachel Humphries is one such person. Humphries is the founder of Refugee Support Services, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping refugees thrive in the Charlotte community. She was teaching English at CPCC and was assigned to work in the refugee community. “When I first started I didn’t even know where some of those countries were on a map,” she says. “After that first day though I realized what a privilege it was to be in the presence of these people—and I haven’t left since.”
Refugee Support Services is focused on connecting refugees from Asia and Africa to others in Charlotte. Humphries shares the story of a refugee from Vietnam who loved to cook and through a series of connections made through the organization ended up passing a 12-week culinary program. “To help him find that sense of pride in his skills and become connected to the Charlotte community is what we’re all about,” says Humphries. “That connection enriches our community.”
It’s that type of connection that inspires Trish Fries, another guest for the dinner, in her work as the GardenWorks Director at Urban Ministry Center. Fries, who is in charge of the center’s 3,000-square-foot urban garden, had been volunteering with the organization for several months before accepting a position there in 2011. Part of her job includes dropping off the garden’s vegetables and flowers at a local charitable farmers market. A homeless man named William would often accompany her, helping to arrange flowers and carry produce. “William was someone who was always trying to work, but he’d had some things stolen and he wasn’t able to,” says Fries. “When he was helping with the garden, though, he got to know some of the women volunteering there and they started giving him work. Then they all chipped in and bought him a new bicycle. Through connections with the community he ended up ending his homelessness.”
It’s the potential for these kinds of networks that is part of the underlying idea for what Haubenhofer hopes will become an annual dinner. “We’re bringing people together to celebrate—but also this is a chance for like-minded people to share and possibly collaborate,” says Haubenhofer. The dinner is designed to cultivate conversation through nostalgic dishes, a family-style setting, and a warm, seasonal vibe. The first hope for those behind it is that the attendees feel appreciated. But they’re also eager to see what happens when this group breaks bread together. “Einstein said that creativity is contagious,” says Haubenhofer. “I think compassion is contagious too.”
For more information on the charitable organizations mentioned here, visit www.proverbs226.org , www.refugeesupportservices.org , and www.urbanministrycenter.org. Visit our website, www.southparkmagazine.com, for a full list of dinner honorees and their organizations. Look for photographs from the event in the Swirl section of the February issue of this magazine.