- Kristin Finan American-Statesman Staff
It was supposed to be an educational conversation among first-graders about Christmas traditions around the world. But one little girl was crying.
“She broke out in tears and said, ‘Santa’s never come to us, he hates us because we’re poor,’” Ian McKenna recalls his sister, Addison, telling him one day after school at Oak Hill Elementary in late 2012.
Ian had to do something. So he hatched a plan with his family — on Christmas morning, they, along with Addison’s teacher, would fill in for Santa, showing up at the little girl’s door with a trunk full of toys and food.
“We gave them the presents and the mom and dad started crying out of joy,” said Ian, now 12. “It was touching. It made me think, ‘What else can I do?’ It felt really good.”
Soon after, Ian learned he had classmates who ate only school-provided breakfast and lunch each day and never got any dinner.
“It definitely made an impact on him,” said Ian’s mom, Sarah McKenna. “Prior to that he had no knowledge that there were kids that went to bed hungry. It was so unbelievable to him.”
Once again, Ian had to do something. So in March 2013 he started a garden at Oak Hill Elementary available to anyone who wanted to use it.
“(That way) they could come and get the crops as they needed them,” said Ian, who has always loved eating vegetables and gardening. “I didn’t expect it to be that big of deal.”
But it was a big deal. Soon he was receiving national attention in the form of awards and grants that allowed him to do even more.
“We never wanted to be a project where an adult was in charge and told the kids what to do,” Sarah McKenna said. “We thought, ‘Let’s let the kids explore and look at real-world problems, because they’re going to be the future.’”
Soon, Ian opened a second garden at Sunset Valley Elementary. Then, thanks to a grant from Katie’s Krops, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that aims to help youths start and maintain gardens and donate the harvest to help feed people in need, he created his own backyard garden filled vegetables including Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, okra, cauliflower, broccoli and even scorpion peppers. His sister, Addison, helps out, too.
In the first year, Ian grew 750 pounds of vegetables, all of which were donated to places like the Central Texas Food Bank.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, wow,’ like they’re shocked (by my age), and it kind of is annoying after it happens a lot, but it also makes me feel like, when they say that, that I’m doing something that nobody really does at this age,” Ian said. “It makes me feel ahead.”
The gardens alone weren’t enough for Ian. The eighth-grader at Kealing Middle School decided he wanted to host a dinner for Austinites in need of a healthy meal. First, he set a date, Jan. 21, and secured a location, El Buen Samaritano outreach ministry in South Austin. Then he selected a menu he knew would incorporate lots of his garden’s fresh produce: chicken teriyaki, veggie stir-fry, sticky rice and roasted vegetables. Next, he appealed to the Austin community for additional food donations that would allow him to serve at least 250 people.
“My first reaction was (to wonder) whether or not this was a legit thing,” said Lisa Barden, program director of Keep Austin Fed, which collects surplus food from commercial kitchens and other businesses and distributes it to area charities that serve hungry people in need. “I was dealing with this 12-year-old boy, which was uncharted territory for me. I said, ‘My name is Lisa, I’m calling from Keep Austin Fed, we received a phone call from Ian,’” Barden said. “His mom said, ‘Oh, he’s taking the garbage out. He’ll be right back.’”
After talking to Ian and realizing that he was, indeed, legit, Barden said Keep Austin Fed was glad to sign on to help provide food for last week’s dinner. The morning of the event, Keep Austin Fed, in partnership with Trader Joe’s in Rollingwood, donated approximately 47 pounds of dairy, 119 pounds of produce, 3 pounds of meat, 4 pounds of eggs and 3 pounds of cookies. Once Ian picked up these and other donated items, which he combined with a haul of vegetables from his garden, he headed to the Erwin Center to prepare the meals with the center’s in-house catering service, Sodexo.
“It blew me away that somebody that age would care about his peers and do something about it,” said Jim Jenkins, CEO of Sodexo, who helped Ian coordinate the dinner. “It just made a lot of sense to support his activities.”
Ian cooked with the Sodexo chefs — who provided him with his own uniform for the occasion — for four hours before transferring everything to El Buen Samaritano.
“As soon as I came in, I learned we had a celebrity coming in,” said Jacob Aguilar, a chef who worked with Ian to make the meal. “He’s a little chef. I’m proud of him. He was el jefe.”
When the doors opened at 6 p.m., a mix of people from around Austin walked through them. Including the mayor.
“I’m here because Ian invited me,” said Mayor Steve Adler after taking a bite of Ian’s food, which he called “delicious.” “When anybody in our community is extending themselves to help others in the community it’s important to be recognized. Ian, at 12 years old, should be a really powerful example to a lot of kids in the community.”
All told, Ian and his supporters fed 350 people, some of whom attended the dinner and others who received takeout boxes of his meal.
“Personally, I’m astonished,” said Sarah McKenna, adding that Ian is already making plans to host monthly dinners and to work with the City Council to increase his outreach. “I think there’s a lot of things he’s done, and the most amazing part to me is he doesn’t understand the impact he’s making. For him, it’s just very natural, like, ‘Why don’t other people do this?’”