At Ms. Barbara’s, children find a hot meal and so much more
“Vance Avenue Youth Development Center, Inc.” That’s what the sign on the cheery yellow building in South Memphis says. But to the families in the neighborhood, it’s simply known as “Ms. Barbara’s.”
Since 1991, Barbara Nesbit has been spending her days at the center she founded, offering home-cooked meals, love, and care to the children of the neighborhood and support to their families.
Barbara opened the center in 1991. She and her co-founder (who’s no longer involved with the center) had been auxiliary probation officers with juvenile court and wanted a way to make a different kind of impact on children’s lives. “The reason for this organization was to help children,” she said. “We knew we couldn’t help them through the juvenile court system because there were so many demands put on the children.”
Her original goal was to help children with homework. “That was it,” she said. “Then I found out that these children weren’t sleeping because they didn’t have a bed, they didn’t have food. We went from homework to furniture, food, and clothing.”
The center offers after-school and summer academic enrichment, helps provide tangible assistance to families, and teaches life skills to children. But it’s so much more than that. “Now we’re just like a regular home for them,” says Barbara.
In the early days of the center, Barbara regularly rented 27-foot trucks to pick up furniture donated from local stores—first, mattresses, so the children and their families would have comfortable spots to sleep in their homes, then beds for those mattresses, and eventually dining tables and more. She helped provide clothing for children who needed it. And eventually she began feeding them.
Her reason for why food became part of her work is simple: “Well, they were hungry. The children were hungry.”
She started out with an easy crowd-pleaser: pizza. Then she started picking up donated frozen vegetables and other foods to give to children’s families.
Eventually—as she saved pennies from selling 50-cent sno-cones to buy a modular building—she ended up where she is now, with a big, health-department approved kitchen.
There she cooks hot meals for whatever children show up—as many as 150 kids some days. She’s there practically 365 days a year, including weekends and holidays.
“With these vegetables we cook here, it’s nutritious, plus they know where the food’s coming from because we have a garden,” she says.
On a summer afternoon, Barbara stands at the stove, getting a stockpot of mashed potatoes just right. “I need some milk over there,” she tells her brother Larry, who often works alongside her. “Give me some butter. Two sticks? I need more than that. I want it buttery. This is my chicken bouillon—it gives it that flavor. Give me some garlic powder, Larry.”
Next to the potatoes, a skillet of yellow squash and onions is sautéing. And in the commercial ovens, pork tenderloins are so tender that they pull apart with a fork when they come out of the oven.
Some of the food is donated. Much of it Barbara buys out of her own pocket.
She purchases most of the meat from the military store—her husband is a veteran—because it’s less expensive there. “That’s why they can eat so good,” she says. “Pork tenderloin, chicken, baby back ribs. I want them to have a balanced, full meal.”
In the little garden outside, they’re growing tomatoes, mustard and turnip greens, and kale. In years past they’ve harvested large sweet potatoes and had an educational, but ultimately unsuccessful, experiment with growing corn.
Barbara says it makes a big difference to the children to know exactly what they’re eating. “I can’t give them greens without them saying, ‘Oh, Ms. Barbara, we helped you pick that out of the garden. We helped you plant these greens.’ That’s to help keep them eating healthy. And they eat healthy here,” she says
Barbara acknowledges that recent years have been difficult for the center, which relies exclusively on volunteers; there are no paid staff members. Reliable volunteers and funding for the center’s work are hard to come by.
“The funding that we would normally have—the pandemic really hurt us a lot,” she says. “School is coming up. Our children need school supplies. We want to have clear backpacks, but right now we don’t have any. These children need deodorant, they need socks, a lot of them need clothes to go to school in.”
But the children keep showing up every day, and Barbara will too—just like she has virtually every day for the last 32 years. At 63, this has been her full-time, non-paid job for more than half her life. “I eat, sleep, and drink this place,” she says.
“When I go to sleep, I think, ‘What can I do to help these children?’”
And anytime anyone comes to her with a need—whether it’s for homework help, a hot meal, connection to community services, or just a cool place to spend a summer afternoon—she’s going to do all she can to help meet it.
“This place is like a safe haven,” she says. “It’s a place of love.”
Manda Gibson is copy editor at Edible Memphis. She loves telling stories and helping other writers tell their stories.
Laney Akin loves capturing what people create and hearing their stories. @laney.akin