Charles Rhody, the fitness and nutrition coordinator at the Southside Community Center is the longest tenured employee at Southside. A native of Mt. Vernon, though he claims the Bronx as his hometown as well, Rhody came to Ithaca in 1994 when he began attending TC3.
While working at George Jr. Republic, the Holiday Inn, McGraw House, and attending school, Rhody found time to volunteer at Southside. The volunteer experience led to a job offer as an afterschool program counselor. Rhody said he has “worked his way up the ladder” since then. When the position of Fitness and Nutrition Coordinator came up, it seemed a perfect fit. Even now, Rhody works several jobs, working at the Youth Advocate Program, Lakeview Mental Health Services, and as a teacher’s assistant and BJM elementary. We, at the Ithaca Times thought it was about time talk with such an active member of the community.
Ithaca Times: Tell us about yourself…
Charles Rhody: I’ve been working in the community for many years. Something that I have a desire to do each and every day is, more than a nine to five, things I like to do. I made a promise to God years ago — I had somewhat helped destroy a community — so it was time for me to help build a community. And that’s what drew me to work in the human service field. I had role models growing up; I was a troubled teen, got into a lot of trouble as a kid. Then there were those role models who helped guide me to go to college. I worked at Southside from 1995-2002. Then the new director, Olan Mack, asked me to come back and work here, so I came back in 2006/2007, which probably makes me one of the longest working employees at Southside Community Center.
One of the directions we have is the nutrition program. I think it’s very important that the kids in the community actually learn about healthy food due to this age in time with the obesity. A lot of kids mostly like to eat snacks and on-the-run foods, and there’s nothing wrong with that because there are on-the-run foods that have fruit and vegetables. So we try to give a balanced meal throughout the day, and it’s very important that kids understand today how important health is involving food. One of the things we try to do is make sure we give them a group of different vegetables and fruits that, at an affordable price, they could have at home as well. It’s good because we have all these different organizations around the community that donate fruit and vegetables like bok choy and watermelon radishs — a lot of kids at first didn’t want to try it. But now it’s good because kids are now willing to try these fruits and vegetables because number one, they taste good. Number two, they always had the assumption that fruits and vegetables are not good, but they now they’re actually trying them. You might have a few kids who still might not like something, but at least they tried it. They can have it on their check list to say “I at least tried it.” We don’t expect every kid to eat every fruit and vegetable that we put out to be served every day, but it’s great to see at least every kid try.
IT: When did you take the position of fitness and nutrition coordinator?
CR: About a year and a half ago. I actually took that position because I’m a person who loves to eat a very healthy meal. I think that when the opportunity presented itself when they asked me to take over that position I was ready to do it because I have a lot of creative ideas as far as food goes. And the person I work with, Lisa — she’s a great person, prepares those meals for the kids to enjoy. I think we’ve definitely been successful from day one in getting kids to try different fruits and vegetables. I mean it’s not 90-100%, but we’ve got at least 85% of the kids trying the fruits and the vegetables. The numbers should go up. Kids do love to eat fruits and vegetables.
IT: What are your top three goals in your position?
CR: Top three goals are basically having the kids understand the importance of having the right nutrients and minerals in your body that preserve your body to last much longer. Educate the kids on different fruits and vegetables — cause there’s a lot of fruits and vegetables that I’m still learning — there’s so many out there. Growing up, we’d see the basic banana, basic apple, basic watermelon, but there are hundreds of other fruits and vegetables from other countries. So it’s educating yourself as well. One of the third goals is to one day have a farm that’s around here, that’s our farm, where [the kids] can actually give out fruits and vegetables in the community. Even though they have a little garden here — teach my kids to plant themselves, organize it themselves, and distribute through the community themselves. That might be a goal which we may have in the future as well.
IT: What other programs do you do?
CR: I also do the food pantry. I distribute food to the community. That’s a helpful resource for people who are struggling through this tough economy. And not just that, but for people who in general who want a different meal than they would get from the government, that’s distributed out for free. Anybody who walks through the door and asks for a bag of food, they’re going to leave with a nice package of food. I think this is a good resource for families that need that assistance to come in — put their pride aside — and get the food that’s available for them. That’s one of the things I really enjoy doing here, because I like seeing a family grab a bag and walk away — tell you thank you and you know they really appreciate the bag you gave them. I’ve been running the food pantry since 1996. I left in 2002, but then I came back in 2007, and I am continuing as of today.
IT: What are your hours here?
CR: I make time. Like my grandfather said, “Sleeping is the cousin of death.” I learned how to work more than one job from when I was a kid. I create time because [they’re] jobs I like to do. I like to work with the people with mental disabilities. I like to teach the kids at school. I like to work at Southside Community, working with the community. I like to work with troubled teens at the Youth Advocate Program. Those are the jobs I like to do because they make me feel like I’m actually being a part of the community, and I know that I’m doing something in the community-being that once upon a time I was a kid in those situations. I knew this field was for me from a long time ago, because I was a people person from way back when. So my hours here normally run from 3:30-8:30, but there might be times when there’s an event going on so I come on the weekends sometimes. I manage my time great.
IT: How do you try and get the kids familiar with new foods?
CR: Our cook here is Lisa [Palanjeli] and she’s done a great job of cooking vegetables with a familiar food that they’re used to, like macaroni and cheese. But we might make macaroni and cheese, or she might make baked chicken, and then she might throw spinach or she might throw bok choy or she might throw some type of squash. So what we do is give them a familiar meal along with the fruit or vegetable to trigger their mind to say, “Well, let me at least try it.” And then we influence them to say “Try it. Try it and see if you like it. If you don’t like it, at least you tried it.” We give them a small sample to try and if it’s something they might want to eat we give them more. The kids that like to try it — those are the kids we like the most. When those kids explain that they do like the meal, then they influence other kids because the other kids say “Let me try because you say its good and normally you don’t eat that, and now you’re saying that’s a great meal. So now I’m going to try it.” So that’s what we normally do, we try and influence them with others. We try to teach them — preach to teach them.
IT: What’s your favorite part of your position?
CR: Just having the opportunity to see kids and adults try something new. I love our cook create a menu, and when she actually makes the menu, we have a chance to see kids enjoying what they are eating. And just the education part, where you hear a kid say ‘bok choy’ at four or five years old which is a vegetable that some adults don’t even know. So that’s one of the best things, to know that you’re educating the kids to be responsible, to eat something that they normally don’t eat, and then what they’re doing is being a trigger person to teach other kids. That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about trying to preach and teach others to understand what we eat and what we do is for a purpose.