Sharing a table and a meal together can make a community stronger.

During a time of unrest nationally and internationally, this is the season to be thankful over a common dinner meeting new people and reaching out to those who are different from us.

The Welcome Project reflects this theme in a year-long collaboration.  It is a partnership between Wave Pool and Heartfelt Tidbits. Technically a program under Wave Pool’s fiscal umbrella, it was co-developed and is co-run by both organizations, according to Wave Pool Executive Director Cal Cullen.

The Project represents a social enterprise that empowers and provides support to marginalized and at-risk refugees and immigrants living in Southwestern Ohio by facilitating integration and self-sufficiency through its innovative educational, cultural and employment – enhancing programming.

United Way selected The Welcome Project in Camp Washington as the partner organization for a pilot project developed as part of UW’s The Shift program, entitled Cincinnati’s Table.  UW is providing The Welcome Project with funds as well as technical assistance and guidance to implement the program.  This will result in one meal per month for 13 months.

Cullen said, “Food is a way to quickly break down the barriers between people who may not feel that they have much in common.  I often use food in my own art practice for that reason.”

“This program is an opportunity to leverage the amazing cultural gifts that our newest neighbors are bringing with them and connect in real and meaningful ways to each other,” said Cullen.

Cincinnati’s table project aims to bridge relationships within neighborhoods including, but not limited to, helping immigrants connect with each other and their neighbors through shared meals. A local artist will introduce the topic with an interactive artwork or installation.

These dining experiences revolve around a theme or focus.  The themes are peace-making, introductions, diaspora, repair/restore, gratitude, celebrate, envision the future, love, exchange, reuse/rescue, affirmations, understanding, nurture, share, welcome and community.

Local artist Denise Burge participated with her emphasis on quilts and textile work in the first meal at Tikkun Farm in Mt. Healthy in late October 2018.  Cullen knew that Burge had a methodical and meditative sense to her practice that was restorative.  “It made sense to pair her with Tikkun Farm for our first dinner,” she said.  Forty-five people turned out for this meal.

Burge said, “Thanks to the collaboration of many creative people, the dinner had the quality of a celebration-not only of the people of Mt Healthy, but also of the venue itself, Tikkun Farm, of the beauty of food, and of the sacred act of eating together.  Our event focused on finding things for which you can be grateful even in hard times, but it wasn’t hard to be grateful for the Welcome Project itself.”

Cullen worked with True Body Project and Mindful Music founder Stacy Sims who walked attendees through an exercise in being more connected at the dinner at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Anderson in November.

The next few months will feature artists such as video artist Loraine Wible (future envisioning), Pam Kravetz (love/celebration) and weaver Abby Schnure (ReUse/Rescue).  Schnure said, “I will be the contributing artist for April to celebrate Earth Day.  I use recycled materials, mainly plastic bags, to weave new material for rugs, pillows and even couches to create environments for community interaction.  I’m excited to contribute as the artist and collaborate with local cooks to think reuse throughout the whole event.”

A long-time Cincinnati native from each of the selected neighborhoods as well as an immigrant or refugee will start conversations and bridge divides within the city.  Cullen said, “We have already seen new friendships being forged and future plans made because of these programs.  We believe that it only takes a short amount of time and effort to understand that we aren’t so different after all, and eating a delicious meal with a little encouragement from a local artist makes the experience all the richer”.

“We’d like to imagine a world where neighbors know and care about each other, no matter what background or differences they may have,“ said Cullen.

“This program is designed to help build those connections that develop community in real and positive ways,” she said.

Each dinner is held in a different part of the city.  These include the Dharma Center in Northside, the Sanctuary in Price Hill, the Contemporary Arts Center, which will be city-wide and downtown focused, and Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine.  The Project will finish with a meal at The Welcome Project in Camp Washington, possibly with a new kitchen, in September 2019.

Members of the Project will issue a cookbook featuring all of the chefs, artists and organizations that participated in October 2019.

Cullen said that it was able to use the vast amount of community partners that Heartfelt Tidbits works with along with a thematic and artistic twist that Wave Pool curated.

Executive Director Sheryl Rajbhandari said, “Heartfelt Tidbits became involved with this project after receiving a number of emails indicating it was a project written for us.  Due to refugees and immigrants living all over the city, Heartfelt Tidbits has formed relationships with many organizations and runs programs in multiple communities in the Greater Cincinnati area.”

Rajbhandari said, “Over the past 18 months, The Welcome Project had been hosting dinners and pop up meals as fundraisers for the Welcome Market/Kitchen.  Cal, the ethnic chefs and I saw this as another way to bring visibility to the versatility Cincinnati has to offer.”

Lourdes Santos Martinez, a member of the Mt. Healthy community, said, “When I came from my country with my family, I lived through very difficult times full of fears, tribulations and loneliness.  When Sheryl took me to The Welcome Project, she helped me get to know more people, to have friends and even feel useful for the community. The dinner at Tikkun Farm was a nice experience because I already have almost five years of living in the same neighborhood.  I did not know many people.  We were able to give and share a bit of the culture of our home since my husband was the one who cooked the dinner.”

Sharing and connecting through food is one of the long-term goals of The Welcome Project, according to Cullen.  She added that the Project has received a grant from Impact 100 to build a permanent teaching kitchen and food market.

Camp Washington, located in the heart of a former industrial district, may seem like an unlikely place for an art gallery, but Cullen, her board and staff want to create Wave Pool as an art fulfillment center where experimental art connects community and creates change.  In the Colerain Avenue and nearby Spring  Grove Avenue area, you can find sites for the former Sara Lee Company, Camp Washington Chili, Superior Honda, Taft’s Ale House and Spring Grove Cemetery, among others.

More information can be found on

–Laura Hobson

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